Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Great Lakers Mystery

My bench seat is this wide
Tonight in Los Angeles, the Lakers took the floor against the Hornets. Entering the game, the home team had a record of 9-40, the second worst in the Association. Here are the starters:

G Lou Williams
G Jordan Clarkson
C Roy Hibbert
F Julius Randle
F Kobe Bryant

Let's consider each in turn.

Williams is a 10-year-pro. He's 6'-1", a tolerable bench scorer who can't defend, and not really a point guard. If he's used properly, the way he was last year in Toronto, he can be an asset. Giving him starter minutes has never made any sense, and it has especially does not make sense on a team that is 9-40.

Clarkson might be on the next Laker team that isn't a laugh out loud embarrassment. He's in his second year, the only good thing to come out of last year's dumpster fire, and in the 15/4/3 range of Not Really A PG or a SG. I don't love his game, because he's terrible on defense and seems more athletic than intelligent, but you could do worse than giving him 35 minutes a night and seeing what happens.

Hibbert, man alive, he's just brutal. I have no idea what happened to make him so old so fast, but right now, he's just a 7/7 slug who seems to just be out there to show the world that lumbering 7-footers no longer have a place in the Association. Maybe he could help a team as their de facto goon, along the lines of a taller Kendrick Perkins, but his spiraling career in Indy showed that he doesn't really have the heart for that. Every minute he's on the court is a minute that Laker Fan should hate.

Randle might be the most depressing part of this year for the team, as last year's first round pick has delivered more empty calories than any young guy in recent memory. He gives you 11/10/2 now, but the limitations to his game -- can't pass, can't go right, can't elevate, can't shoot from distance, can't defend -- are seemingly set in stone. You give him minutes because he's young and might get better, and you deal him to any GM that asks about him, because he's just a reason to lose.

And then there's the sad remains of Kobe Bryant, all 16/4/4 of him, a 35% (!) shooter who is proving that sad memorial tours don't have to just be for Derek Jeter. Bryant's sole remaining goal for his last 30-odd games in the Association should be to avoid injury and get a half dozen more moments on SportsCenter, because he might be the worst player in the Association. No, seriously.

So what we have here is two out of five starters that you might actually feel good about, kind of. You have to give Bryant 25 minutes a game for the gawker crowds, but not a second more. Which makes the way the Lakers delegate their remaining minutes all the more perplexing, because the bench is where you will find D'Angelo Russell, the 2nd overall pick in the draft last year, and outside of Clarkson and maybe Randle, the only assets on the team that might be here after the purge. (I'm going to ignore Larry Nance Jr., who looks OK only when you compare him to Randle, and has no more ceiling to his middling game. Trust me, he's nothing.)

Now, Russell has *not* been good. So far, he's 12/3/1 on 41% shooting as he adjusts to life as an NBA point, with way too many turnovers and poor body language. At age 19, he's not helping anyone win games... but FFS, this is a 9-win team with no one who would start for a .500 club. Winning games is not an option. What they should be doing is not playing the guys who can play -- you don't have those -- but the guys who might figure it out later.

So, why are the Lakers doling out minutes to their younger players as if they were fighting for the 8th seed? Well, three reasons.

1) They have to stay high in the NBA draft -- as in top 3 -- or they lose their first rounder to Philadelphia next year. If you think the Sixers have been tankers, wait until you see what the Lakers do once they get Win #10, so they can avoid the 1973 Sixers Infamy Record. I think they might bring back Lamar Odom and start him. In his current medical condition. Hey, he'd have as much left in the tank as Bryant, and some other check collectors on the Laker bench...

2) They really are this stupid. Also littering the Laker bench? Metta World Peace -- no, seriously -- who wasn't good five years ago, prior to traveling the world and discovering that real Chinese food is wildly fattening. Nick Young, more proof that exposure to reality TV is wildly destructive to your health and basketball utility. Robert Sacre and Tariq Black, who somehow make Hibbert look mobile. Brandon Bass and Ryan Kelly and Anthony Brown and dear Lord in heaven, if you are going to have guys that can't play, at least give them names that are different from guys that we all knew could not play five years ago.

3) Coach Byron Scott thinks that the way to develop young players is Tough Love. So when Russell turns it over -- as if he's alone with that problem on this roster -- it's time to sit that teenager's ass down and show him the error of his ways. The fact that no one on this team runs simple cuts and gets open, preferring to go iso as if they were all channeling mid 1980s Michael Jordan? It's all the teenage point guard's fault.

This will all continue for another 10 weeks, which is how much longer the NBA regular season will run. The Lakers will clean house in the off-season, with Scott getting run out on a rail with any number of distressed assets. NBA writers will talk extensively about how the Lake Show is going to attract big name talent with all of their available cap space, high picks, prime location. And none of that will actually come to pass, because you don't have to go anywhere near the bright lights and big city to make real money anymore. Damian Lillard, in Portland, appears on State Farm ads. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook cash checks in OKC, where the money probably spends 2X as well as it does in Cali. LeBron James went from Miami to Cleveland and didn't lose a dime. The Association plays to the world, and the world does not really care what your jersey says, so long as your team wins games and is fun to watch.

Is there a way out for them? Only one, and it's so obvious that even Scott might stumble into it. Give Russell the keys to the car, play him with Clarkson and Randle and the two least regrettable other guys regardless of position, tell them to run at every opportunity and don't pull the kid until his tongue is on the floor. Maybe you force feed him into a 20/10 volume guy, and give everyone in town a moment of hope, or pump up his trade stock, the way the Sixers did with Michael Carter-Williams. If he flops, he flops; you're losing these games either way.

And as to why they aren't doing this?

I have no earthly idea.

And no one else who has been watching this franchise does, either.

Five Ways To Prank A Gymnastics Meet

Prank These People
Tonight was the second to last meet for my eldest daughter in her third year of competing as a gymnast. So when I add it all up, that means I've been to a couple of dozen meets at this point, and have spent over a hundred hours in the crowd, waiting and watching.

And in all that time, I'm pretty much struck by one consistent thread.

Nearly everyone is taking this *way* too seriously. Especially the kids.

So, without further ado, here are five pranking possibilities that would liven up the proceedings, without really harming anyone. (And before some parent has a meltdown and reports me, not so much that I'll do it myself. Besides, I don't have the connections or skills.) Let's get pranking!

1) Ringer Rejection

The kids who perform at these meets are amazing, dedicated and talented, but they aren't the best in the world. So what I'd like to see happen is have someone at that level brought in as if she were an ordinary kid, and have her take the first spot, probably on floor, and do her absurdly over the top best... and have the judge give it a low score. Just to film everyone's reactions. You want to do better than 5.5, kids? You are going to have to beat *that*.

(Then, you reveal the guest's actual identity, and maybe have her do the other three apparatus and sign some autographs before leaving. Sure, it might delay things by a half hour, but it'd be memorable.)

2) Floor Magic

How hard is it, really, to swap in a different audio track for a movie file? Not very, which means that we should be able to replay floor exercises during dead time -- which for the spectators, is a substantial amount, given that each change of station adds 15 minutes of warm up time, not to mention the close of business nonsense before the awards -- but with substantially different audio.

Sure, some folks might get upset by Tibetan throat singing, goats singing Christmas carols, or the theme music to "The Venture Brothers" and "Archer" as the background to their precious charges, but, um, eff those people. There's humor to be mined here, and so long as you make things goofy enough and treat everyone the same, it'll work out. Plus, hey, goat singing. Everyone loves goat singing.

3) Foam Fight

Every gym has them; pits filled with foam that are used to teach the kids how to fall properly. Since gyms are also pretty limited in terms of size and layout, these pits are pretty much just waiting for some kind of use. Any, really.

So instead of doing stuff like handstand contests at the close of the event, let's just give the kids what they really want, after all of these months of training... the chance to either chuck their coaches into the pits, or drown them in foam bricks.

Oh, and if you want to give the parents a few bricks to chuck? We're on the hook for thousands of dollars a year. I think we've earned some foam.

4) Team Goofus

This one's easy, and honestly, I know any number of kids that would gladly volunteer for this. The idea is to have an unknown gym compete as the Goofus Squad, and have them do as much weird or absurd stuff as possible. Maybe do a routine on the beam while checking their phone, a floor routine that involves standing in place for uncomfortably long periods of time, or break dancing on the vault. Give a kid the chance to do safe but weird, and I think you'd get high entertainment value. And the most popular team in town.

5) Coach Lottery

One more for the dead time: by lottery, a coach is chosen, and has to perform a routine on the apparatus of his or her choice. What would work here is how much the kids would mark out for seeing something they've never seen before, not to mention how much it would rule if the coach in question played up just how little they wanted to be there, or how rusty they were. (And sure, fix the lottery if you're worried about injury. I trust these people to make it look like they aren't prepared before they do something.)

Any further ideas, fire away...

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Hey, Fox, Was It Something I Said?

Got this in the mail today. This is, literally, the first time that Yardbarker has acknowledged the existence of this blog since March 2013.

No warning, explanation or class
Now, I've been terminated before. I'm a grown up, cost real money to hire, have worked in shaky places and have made some mistakes in my life. I don't really regret any gig that I no longer have, because I try very hard to have no regrets as a rule. Regrets are stupid, make everyone around you feel like you would rather not be in their presence, and are just aren't a good choice.

But man alive, was Yardbarker not a good choice.

Let's go back in time that no one cares about. Years and years ago, I was invited to write for Bleacher Report, and did it for the better part of a year. As the invitation was right up there with being invited to write for the Huffington Post (i.e., we'll get rich from your work, and pay you squadouche), I did it for a while, saw no gain for my traffic or take here, then bailed. Yardbarker's arrangement was better, in that they put your stuff in their widget, and you got traffic. In the heyday of this blog, because Web publishing became a sadder joke in terms of a per hour working wage, I'd bank checks from them and Google, and get four figures a year from my work.

Anyway, I wound up meeting some of YB's top people, tried to do a deal with them at the two start ups ago start up, and more or less put it out of mind when they sold out to Fox. Those people moved on after the sale to Fox, YardBarker stopped slotting my stuff, and Bleacher Report got Turner Bucks and an absurd amount of exposure from TNT and others. Yardbarker would send out these by the numbers inside sales nonsense newsletters about what hot contract they just did, but the take never got better, and I left them on the blog out of inertia, rather than any actual belief in their vision.

So today's letter just means that I could pull off pixels and ads that weren't worth the trouble anyway. I get to stop paying attention to their crapbait clickbait newsletter. I take some pride in knowing that, to whatever infinitesimal degree, I'm no longer helping Fox do any damn thing at all. And the blog loads faster for you, Dear Theoretical Reader, and with fewer ads that are a lot less relevant than the Google spots anyway.

As for Yardbarker's future prospects? Well, to be blunt, they have none, but that would be true whether they cut me loose or not. It's basically just another URL for Fox, and no one really goes to Fox, because the habit is ingrained for ESPN, the better content has always been at other places, and the fantasy traffic has mostly stayed with Yahoo. If you want gossip, you stay with Deadspin; analysis, nerdery sites that try to upsell to premium content. And with everyone in the biz having no earthly idea how to monetize this stuff in the first place, let alone when it's on a phone screen, we're all humped anyway.

So, toodles, Fox! Please, in the immortal words of the late great Sam Kinison, slide under a gas truck and taste your own blood. You are Satan's Little Helpers, and you can go take a flying f*** at a rolling doughnut.

*Now* it's over, you freaking mooks.

The Eagles Get Their Ends Tight

Before we get into the guts of what the laundry did this week, I'm going to ask you to indulge me in one of my many moments of nerdery.

To wit, I'm fond of the the occasional musical. (Yes, I'm straight. But flattered that you'd ask.) And one of my favorites is "Into the Woods", especially the 1991 stage version, because Bernadette Peters will absolutely cut a bitch. The best of many great moments for what might be the signature role of the play is when the Witch positively spits out these lyrics:

You're so nice
You're not good
You're not bad
You're just nice
I'm not good
I'm not nice
I'm just right

- Stephen Sondheim, "Last Midnight", "Into the Woods"

Seriously, play the clip. You could do surgery with the way she says "nice."

Now, back to the Eagles.

Yesterday, the team locked up promising young TE Zach Ertz with the fourth-highest salary for his position in the NFL. The deal is a little iffy, because Ertz hasn't been all that healthy, all that great in the red zone, and prone to only brief periods of high-end production, mostly because he's (a) middling at best as a blocker, and (b) prone to the occasional drop and fumble. But what the hey, his best days are probably ahead of him, and it's not as if the club is lousy with pass catchers. Ink him up, play him all the damn time, let him be the 100+ catch a year safety valve in new HC Doug Pederson's West Coast / I'm Gonna Need Me A New Jason Kelce offense. Iffy but defensible. Hope like hell Ertz earns it.

With the move, the Eagles were certain to finally tear the Band-Aid all the way off and give longtime TE Brent Celek his release. Celek, the last link to long-ago days of glory, is coning off his worst year as a pro, not just in terms of catches and yards, but also the devastating back side blocking that was missing from so many long runs from scrimmage the past couple of years. Given his age and lack of separation, it's unlikely that Celek would stick in the league for very long, and...

Um, wait, what's this?

Celek signs 3-year deal worth $13 million

It's not good. It's not bad. It's just >nice<.

Now, I get why you'd do this. 3 years for $13 million really isn't that much. The organization has gotten all kinds of grief for being callous with their best, and the way they treated, say, Brian Dawkins remains a sore spot. Pederson's offense is obviously TE heavy, and Ertz hasn't been so durable that TE2 will get no snaps, or plays of importance.

But man alive, Celek wasn't very good last year, and at age 31, really isn't likely to be better. Trey Burton has looked like a player in limited snaps, and he costs nothing; he probably isn't going to want to be TE3 too much longer. And in a world where salary caps are finite, do you really want to tie your funds up on a part-time player?

I don't do the move if it's my team. But after the Kelly Fiasco, over-correcting by being what the fraud wasn't -- i.e., personable and kind to the Andy Reid survivors -- is totally going to happen. It's time to be >nice<.

Whether it makes any football sense or not.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Cardinals - Panthers Takeaways

No Need To Comment
> For the second straight week, a well-regarded NFC West team got absolutely trucked by the home team

> Imagine how good this Panther team would be with WRs that were better than Ted Ginn Jr. and Name TBD Brown

> It's a good thing that Carson Palmer won his first playoff game last week, otherwise he might have come out flat and turnover-happy in this one

> Patrick Peterson's muffed punt was a back breaker, but to be fair, the Cardinals' back was going to be broken in so many other ways

> Larry Fitzgerald used up all of his Hero Moments last week, obviously

> Palmer's hurt finger might have contributed to his terrible game, and the lack of Tyrann Mathiew also didn't help, both of whom were hurt late in a blowout against the Eagles, because Bruce Arians is kind of an asshat

> The Panthers' ability to compete with Street Meat DBs is more than a little surprising, and an excellent reason why every NFL team didn't hire Sean McDermott to be their new head coach

> Despite the crushing defeat, David Johnson is all kinds of good as a RB, assuming Palmer's career doesn't go Full Delhomme after this

> If LB Stephen Davis is hurt enough to miss the Super Bowl, Carolina should still win going away

> It was nice of Arizona's WRs to try to play as badly as Palmer, so he wouldn't stand out so much

> This 17-1 team with the most obvious MVP in recent NFL history might be really good

> Newton might be the only QB in NFL history for whom 3rd and 10 is a good bet to convert by just running it

> Palmer's injured finger and the absence of Tyrann Mathieu means that Chip Kelly had his revenge on Arians, but um, next year's Cardinals-49ers games won't keep that ledger tidy

> Panthers' HC Ron Rivera went for 2 while up 25 with 5 minutes left, because LOL this game

> There's a really good chance that the Panthers faced their best opponent in their first playoff game

> Arizona threw the ball after the Panthers took a knee, because Arians is also kind of a dick

> Bengal Fan laughed a lot during this game, and Raider Fan too

> I will gladly take the Panthers with anything under 14 in the Super Bowl in two weeks

NFL Conference Championship Ad Questions

10) If you are choosing food that costs very little from a fast food restaurant, is it really fair to call it a choice?

9) When the case of beer starts talking to you, isn't that a sign that you should stop drinking?

8) Isn't the fact that the VW kids are texting ways to cheat kind of too much on brand right now?

7) Did Bud Light pay Amy Schumer as much for her soul as they did Seth Rogan, or was this one of those 70% things?

6) Given that CBS spent much of the first half talking about how Microsoft Surface tablets didn't work, did they get a refund on the cost of their ad campaign?

5) When you call a truck military grade, doesn't that just mean it's astoundingly expensive and sourced to have jobs in hundreds of congressional districts, so that it can't ever be killed?

4) Is Watson going to end humanity now, or do we have another week?

3) Will the feeling that the Ford Fusion helps me recapture from my youth cause nausea?

2) How much of the joy of cola is the joy of diabetes?

1) Does all of Pizza Hut's "food" leave trails of ooze, in all manifestations?

Broncos - Patriots Takeaways

Von's Bad / He Knows It
> The size of CBS' pre-game orgasm about having Brady vs. Manning XVII was downright unseemly, and didn't diminish all day

> NE won the toss and didn't defer, which symbolized, um, something

> CBS doesn't announce personnel via on-screen spoken intros anymore, which is just about the only good thing about their telecasts

> NE was unable to get any push on their lone running play of the first series, which was all kinds of telling

> Denver got contact on QB Tom Brady on third down without a flag or post-whistle begging for a flag, for the first truly remarkable event of the day

> The Broncos' first drive of the day might have been QB Peyton Manning's best of the year

> Bootleg Manning for maximum accuracy made the Patriots go to a 3-man rush, then the defense failed to cover TE Owen Daniels for a cotton-soft score

> TE Rob Gronkowski didn't get a flag on a third and 3 chuck play, which created a 3 and out and the start of a long day of puling

> Brady destroyed all narratives about how much better he was at this point of his career than Manning with a terrible INT in his own red zone

> Manning's dumb lateral and Ronnie Hillman's inability to pick up a live ball more or less cost them seven points and the ability to go up a lot in the first half

> K Stephen Gostkowski missed a PAT, which let the announcing team talk about his massively long PAT streak, as if PATs didn't get a lot harder this year; it also turned out to be incredibly important

> Owen Daniels wasn't the best TE in this game despite two TDs, because without Rob Gronkowski, there's absolutely no drama in this one

> Microsoft got called out for first half technical tablet difficulties, which has to be just what they were hoping for with that product placement

> Ed Hochuli decided that the most important game of the year in the AFC was the time to dust off the 15 yards for running out of bounds during punt coverage rule

> The longest run for the Patriots in the first half was by Tom Brady, because that's entirely predictable

> Brady spent most of the game short hopping throws, as if he were possessed by the spirit of Donovan McNabb

> Neither team did themselves any favors by running it for pretty much the entire game

> Denver was much better in the first half, but the stupid lateral made it a one possession game

> Peyton Manning reached a top speed of 16 mph on his scramble for a first down, which made the Denver bench break out in giggles

> Denver went into an offensive funk and shell in the fourth quarter, which pretty much gave Brady a half dozen opportunities to suck out a win

> Why every important Patriots play isn't to Gronkowski is one of those things that Patriot Fan will never understand

> The fourth down conversion and fourth down touchdown to Gronk were mind-bogging great plays, both by the QB and TE, that were greatly aided by injuries to the starting Bronco safetys

> Next year, NE might want to get Brady a deep threat WR who is better than reserve RB James White, because White really isn't very good

> Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware treated the NE OL like speedbags for most of this game

> Miller somehow got away with a Key & Peele level sack celebration involving his junk

> Football is so good, it can overcome terrible refs, sloppy offense, bloodsport tendencies and mawkish media coverage that over-emphasizes two players over ninety

> With the win, Manning becomes the first QB to start multiple Super Bowls for two teams, and in two weeks, he'll be the first to lose three out of four of those games

Friday, January 22, 2016

NFL Conference Championship Picks: The Year Of No Good Outcomes

Preach, Son, Preach
So as we look at two of the last three games of the NFL season, I'm struck by the following point of exceptional depression: there is no resolution that isn't going to, on some level, make me deeply unhappy.

If Denver wins, we are going to literally drown in the schmaltz-filled ending of Peyton Manning's career, and the parallels to when John Elway walked away. Manning will be on your television, endorsing every product, for the next five years, provided he doesn't engage in something spectacularly criminal, a Super Bowl win and walk into the sunset will be seen so often that you're going to want to claw out your eyeballs. And I am, for the record, Not A Manning Hater. But if the guy wins his next two games, it will be the defense that has so much more to do with it.

If New England wins, Boston Fan is going to reach supernova level of hatefulness. It will be proof that cheating works, that playing in a cake division and conference where you only have to win a couple of toss-up games a year is the best way ever to be called a dynasty, and that running the most and best offensive pick plays while having an accurate QB is the living nuts. It will enter the Patriots into the conversation for Best Team Ever, which is entirely fitting for an era where dominance is rare, and just getting the better of the officiating and turnover count is mistaken for genius.

If Arizona wins, one of the worst states in the country for racial relations, along with an ownership family that's been synonymous with horrifying decisions and embarrassing behavior, finally breaks through and gets their parade. They'll do it in a home stadium that's named for a rapacious corporation that preys on the dreams of the underclass, for a coach that might have been a coin flip away from the boner loss of the century, and potentially give rise to a new dynasty for a fan base that sells their tickets to road fan more than any other. Seriously, Arizona is the worst.

Oh, and if Carolina wins, one of the five worst owners in the NBA gets a Super Bowl ring. The annoying dapping thing will live for years longer that it should, the league will try to copycat with oversized running QBs that defenses will not be allowed to hit, and we'll be told that the Panthers were only able to be this good because they like Creed, or Jebus, or whatever.

All of these teams belong here in the final four. Two of them will make for a good matchup in two weeks. They'll just do it by reminding you that you probably should stop caring about football.

And with that... on to the picks!

* * * * *

New England at DENVER (+3)

The case for New England:
Best coach / QB combo in their generation, and maybe ever. TE Rob Gronkowski has ruined the Broncos for years, even more than other teams. WR Julian Edelman shook off he rust last week, and should be better at moving the chains this week. QB Tom Brady gets rid of the ball so quickly that rushing the passer seems pointless. WR Danny Amendola is playing the best ball of his career for this team, and got away with a suspension-worthy offense last week, because LOL Patriots. The team is never outcoached, has one of the better defenses of their recent history, and almost always beats Manning when they really want it.

The case against: No real running game to speak of, as the top RBs are long gone due to injury. Brady has had real problems in Denver in his career, along with a losing record. Team staggered down the stretch, with massive line issues. Defense is more or less pliable, and you have to wonder if, at some point, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will call in all kinds of favors to make sure he doesn't have to deal with these reprobates at the Super Bowl again.

The case for Denver: Home field matters at this stage a lot, especially with altitude. Best defense in the conference, and by a fairly large margin. Running game got on track when they needed it last week, and the passing game might have had their bad game already, with a great deal of untimely drops. K Brandon McManus has been money.

The case against: Manning is clearly on his last legs, and was lucky to avoid crippling INTs last week. Special teams aren't particularly great, and the home crowd is pretty quick to lose their patience.

The pick: Broncos 24, Patriots 23. On a number of shaky calls, to the eternal whine of Patriots Fan.

Arizona at CAROLINA (-3)

The case for Arizona:
Complete team, especially on offense, where WR Larry Fitzgerald has been playing out of his mind. Likely to move the ball even on the road against a good defense. Playmakers on both sides of the ball, with aggressive coaching and a QB in Carson Palmer who may finally relax in the playoffs, seeing as he's finally got a win to his credit.

The case against: Could have missed getting here if only they don't win the coin flip last week. Defense can get gassed, and the pass rush isn't up to the rest of their standards. Special teams have been shaky.

The case for Carolina: QB Cam Newton has been the best in the game this year. RB Jonathan Stewart showed a lot of burst in his return from injury last week. TE Gregg Olson is every team's biggest concern, and yet he keeps breaking games open every week. Defensive front seven is the best in the game, and CB Josh Norman has been phenomenal. Home field.

The case against: Bad with a lead, and the WRs are some of the worst to ever get this far into the playoffs. Secondary can be had, and coaching has been shaky. For a 16-1 team, surprisingly pliable in a lot of games, and they played a poor second half last week and still got here. Newton has seemed different when the game is close now.

The pick: Panthers 31, Cardinals 27

Last week: 1-2-1

Season: 139-117-4

Career: 757-749-49

Thursday, January 21, 2016

How many wins would the Sixers have with a full year of Ish Smith?

The Wish For Ish
The short answer: assuming he didn't get hurt, 12. But the long answer is more fun. Let's get into it.

Tonight in Orlando, the Sixers got their sixth win of the year against 38 losses, and their first against an Eastern Conference opponent. Beyond the obvious fact that any Sixers win is notable, this one was memorable due to just how many players contributed, especially after Nerlens Noel went down with some odd stress-induced headache. (We're told that Nerlens has excitement issues, which is a little scary given the utter lack of meaningful games for this laundry, but let's just ignore this until it becomes a real issue.) Jakarr Sampson also got hurt, but honestly, he's Jakarr Sampson. That probably helped.

You had Jahlil Okaford doing what he's done for a good chunk of the year -- scoring early, fading late, but the early was good enough for 20 and 5. (Yes, we know he's got real issues in rebounding and defense for a big, but he is all of 19.) The bench of Hollis Thompson, Isaiah Canaan and Jerami Grant combined for 44 points and 7 for 10 from the arc, and Robert Covington had a career high with 11 boards. Grant blocked five shots, and the whole team combined to turn it over just 14 times (that's really good for this crew) and miss 6 free throws (out of 21, and again, better than hoped).

But the single biggest factor (beyond Orlando not being able to put it in the ocean was, once again, Ish Smith. Tonight's line was 13-2-11 on 6 for 11 from the floor, with just 3 turns and 5 fouls in his 30 minutes, and once again, he gave the shooters space to do what they do best, and a number of quality oopage at the rim for the bigs. He also showed that he can do more than heat up Noel in the half court, and while his man (Elfrid Payton) had a night himself with 21-6-10, the fact that every game isn't starting with an insurmountable hole at point guard, and turnovers whenever the opposing team wants them, is just a night and day difference.

With Smith, the Sixers are the club we thought we were going to get from the start of the year. In retrospect, the injuries to Kendall Marshall and Tony Wroten masked just how bad both of those guys were going to be, and it's not as if TJ McConnell and Canaan were able to make up for the slack. Which made me wonder... well, what if the team had just locked up Smith in the summer, when he was freely available talent and they certainly knew about him, since he finished the 2014-15 season in the laundry?

Well, I think they avoid the 0-17 start, for certain. And given the number of close but not quite games where the team just couldn't handle fourth quarter defensive pressure, it's not outside of the realm of possibility that they could be looking at 10 to 12 wins now, rather than six. Hell, they've been a borderline .500 club for the past few weeks, and against a tolerable schedule.

There were, of course, reasons to go with Marshall and Wroten over Smith. Both of the former are younger, haven't been on as many teams, and came into the league with more of an athletic pedigree than the Ish. But that also ignore the eye test, and just how much better of a player Smith has made out of himself in his mid-20s. His quicks are damn near elite, and while every other part of his game is shaky, he doesn't panic when the heat is on, and he's got some poor man's Tony Parker to the mid-range game that's downright clever. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that Ish is PG2 on the next actually good Sixer team, and having some kind of Jarrett Jack-like career seems more likely by the day.

While the club might have been better to watch and root for for the first 35 Ish-less games, it's also likely to have set back their growth. As is, the club is starting to get in hailing distance of not having the most ping pong balls (the Lakers have 9 wins, the Nets 11, the Suns 13, and honestly, every game the Suns win now just seems like an accident). It's a fine line, not having so many losses as to set some infamous record, and yet still qualify for the high stud guard that they've needed for way too long.

For now, we'll just delight in the road win, the sight of Okafor tuning Nikola Vucevic and Jason Smith, and the idea that Ish might even make Noel and Okaford look like they can live together.

And if Joel Embiid can ever get on the floor, and the team can can get Dario Saric to come over, then make some very necessary deal to get the stud guard they haven't had since Andre Iguodala was deemed Not A Star?

Well then, we can do things like root for wins over our own conference before late January. Sounds like more fun to me...

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The End Of Basketball As We Know It

Chuckle Time Every Time
Tonight in Cleveland, the defending champion Warriors faced one of their biggest challenges of the year. Coming off an unseemly and shocking beatdown at the hands of the Pistons, they were facing LeBron James and the Cavs on their home floor, in front of a raucous crowd, for their only visit to Cleveland this year. It was a nationally televised game, and when PG Stephen Curry made odd trash talk noises about loving to play here because it reminded him of the championship, we all knew what was coming next.

Thug ball. Vengeance for the fans of the Land of Cleve. The Cavs getting as deep and dirty as possible, following up on what worked in the Christmas Day loss in Golden State. Matthew Dellevadova, fresh off his coronation by the LA Times as the dirtiest player in the Association, doing very dellie things. James and Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving showing that when they are healthy, the Cavs aren't just the class of the East, but a real threat to the Dubs defending their crown.

Final score: Dubs 132, Cavs 98.

Even worse? It wasn't that close.

Curry had 35-5-4 without playing in the fourth quarter. The Dubs were up 26 at the freaking *half*. Love went 1-5 in 21 minutes, while James was a relatively innocuous 16-5-5 in 33, and a team-worst -35 in plus/minus. The second-leading Cavs scorer was JR Smith with 14, and he got tossed in the third quarter for a flagrant foul.

The Dubs shot 19 for 40 (!) from the arc, with Andre Iguodala doing his routine LeBron's Kryptonite treatment by outscoring the world's best player, again. Draymond Green nearly triple doubled, again. Every available Dub played, and not just a courtesy minute. The game was tied twice, at 0-0 and 2-2. There were no lead changes. Just utter and complete domination, because when the Dubs are making their threes, no team in the Association can even stay in the picture.

The win keeps the Dubs ahead of the pace for most wins in a season, and while NBA cognoscenti have been playing the "Hold On, The Spurs Are Terrifying Too", the plain and simple is that San Antonio has a worse record (though 38-4 vs 36-6 isn't exactly chopped liver) with an easier schedule. Short of injuries or a sudden outbreak of selfishness, neither of which seems in the least bit likely, the best regular season mark in NBA history is totally within the Dubs' wheelhouse, especially if they can get through the current long road trip, which includes stops in Chicago, Oklahoma City (piddling along at 30-12) and the Spurs.

This is where people who don't really understand the NBA regular season talk about how none of this really matters, and that the Dubs are driving too hard for meaningless goals. This misses on any number of levels. First and most obvious, the Dubs actually spread the minutes hard, mostly because their bench usually adds to the lead. No one on this team is racking up anything close to difficult minutes. Second, the reason why the NBA playoffs don't have a ton of upsets is because the regular season is highly predictive, and all of those games are important in terms of unit development.

Or, at least, they're important for teams that aren't the Warriors. (And remember, champions are supposed to come back to the pack the next year. Injuries, free agent defections, age, guys looking for stats over rings. Um, maybe not so much. And just how terrible of a coach was Mark Jackson to hold these guys down for so long?)

See, the vast majority of the NBA are teams that, with the exception of a few great and terrible teams, have wins and losses decided by, at most, a half-dozen possessions of game. You are dealing with some of the world's best athletes, with significant scouting and coaching, and just about everyone who doesn't play for the Lakers cares.

And then... there's the Warriors, who win games by double digits, and have the game's leading scorer in Curry at 29.9 per game. And that dude doesn't play the fourth quarter. (San Antonio is even worse right now, at 14.3 vs the Dubs' 11.2.)

Which leads to the following two questions for me.

1) How much will the Dubs beat the 72-10 mark by,

2) Will the Spurs get it as well, and

3) Can we please, for heaven's sake, move one of the teams to the lEast so that the True Finals happen in, well, the Finals?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Top 11 Steelers - Broncos Takeaways

One more week of Ol' Forehead
11) Bronco K Brandon McManus made all of his attempts, and became the first NFL player ever from Temple to make a difference in a game

10) Rather than try a tying long field goal at altitude, Pittsburgh tried a manageable fourth down and took a shot at the end zone, because HC Mike Tomlin is crazy aggro

9) Both teams played this so close to the vest that a single fumble from a deep reserve RB doomed the Steelers

8) It turns out that the only thing you really need to stop two of the most successful QBs in NFL history is a strong breeze, a crippling amount of age, and a concussion to the best WR in the NFL

7) On the first play from scrimmage, Ben Roethlisberger threw deep and missed an open man, which was simultaneously encouraging and maddening

6) There's an amazing number of teams that totally whiffed on Martavis Bryant, and the Steelers have a seemingly inexhaustible number of good WR prospects

5) Rather than try a 50 yard field goal at altitude in the fourth quarter, Tomlin decided to punt, which netted all of 14 yards and showed that he's crazy conservative

4) Peyton Manning is very aware of his limitations at this point in his career, which is why the Broncos ran it three times in the red zone late, and scored the game-winning touchdown

3) The NFL unveiled a new and totally indefensible rule, which is that we reward teams for muffing punts into their end zone

1) If we consolidated both of these teams, we're probably still giving New England a de facto Super Bowl bye, again, because watching the NFL makes you a world-class masochist

Top 10 Sunday NFL Divisional Playoff Ad Questions

Wasted Youth
10) By what twisting of the English language is more pizza from Domino's described as a reward?

9) How many second half advertisers in the Seattle - Carolina beatdown started drinking in the second quarter?

8) Why are songs about telescopes being used to sell phones?

7) Are the proud cable TV family with old-fashioned ability to do for themselves happier with life than the satellite people?

6) Can't Rashida Jones think of more upsetting things to say to her Internet obsessed friends than clown babies?

5) If your head explodes after using, doesn't the problem of an exploded head ruin any potential cost savings?

4) Are Dodge drivers all rapists, or at the very least, driven by men who have to convince the women in their life to have sex due to their choice of car?

3) Why would anyone want to patronize a service as the same people who shoehorn the non-word "bro" into every other word?

2) Do the Nationwide spots prove that Peyton Manning lives a world without friends, where he's constantly humming to himself, and if so, how does this sell insurance?

1) Are any of the FedEx Kids going to live long enough to realize how badly they squandered their childhood?

Top 12 Seahawks - Panthers Takeaways

Yay, My Minions Succeeded
12) There is no true twelfth takeaway, because the game wasn't in Seattle

11) The win means that America either gets to root for joyless hard-ass bucket o' crap Jerry Richardson (right) or the eternal walking manure pile that is Bill Bidwell, but it's not like there are many owners in the NFL that you don't want to see impaled

10) When Joe Buck tells you a game is a long way from over, it's really hard to think it's anything but over

9) If this was Marshawn Lynch's last game in a Seahawks uniform, he'll be very fresh for his next team

8) Carolina started running out of children to give touchdown balls to in the first half

7) If Seattle elected to kick a field goal when down huge in the first half, the end of this game would have been a lot more interesting

6) Starting this game at 10am PST is a fine and pointless excuse for Seattle air-mailing the first half

5) Jonathan Stewart coming back from injury makes the Carolina running attack a lot more intriguing, because Cameron Artis-Payne is secretly from that Key and Peele name skit

4) If the Panthers had Kelvin Benjamin healthy all year, they might be really good, instead of just 16-1

3) As good as the Panther front seven is, it's still less than encouraging when you have to count on Kurt Coleman in coverage

2) This game saw a very large serving of Good Russell Wilsona and Bad Russell Wilson, but if you are a Seahawk Fan, he's still got to be your favorite QB ever (and it's not close)

1) If Seattle had completed the comeback, we might, as a nation, finally gotten past the scourge of Sad Michael Jordan Meme

Packers - Cardinals Top 20 Takeaways

Hail Mary Twice Over
20) A 100-yard pick six was reversed after any number of flags, but only after a solid minute of riveting committee action, and this somehow wasn't one of the biggest plays of the game

19) When you pass protect for this Aaron Rodgers guy, he's a lot better than the guy that kept getting scraped off the turf for the second half of the season

18) Arizona led at the half despite having only 75 yards of offense and no special teams or defensive scores, which is one of the 20 hopelessly unlikely things about this game

17) If this is what it takes to finally get Carson Palmer a playoff win, we don't want to know what has to happen for Marvin Lewis

16) Eddie Lacy's monumentally bitter fantasy owners are glad he didn't score on his 61 yard run in the third quarter

15) Randall Cobb made the greatest catch in NFL history that never happened, then left the game with a chest injury, so, yeah, not really his day or year

14) Just for a change of pace, the officiating was really terrible in this game, because we haven't had any of that this year

13) For the second time today, the home team got absolutely bailed out on a deflected pass

12) Bruce Arians called for a deep fade rather than kill the clock late, because you want to give Rodgers an extra 45 seconds for a tying touchdown drive

11) On 4th and 20, Rodgers completed a 61-yard play to continue the proceedings, which was an utterly insane play that you've never seen before

10) Rather than spike the ball after that play, Rodgers burned an unconscionable amount of clock, just because Great almost always alternated with Stupid in this game

9) The refs in this game were, we are not making this up, unable to flip a coin correctly to begin overtime, which is something that has probably never happened in any football game ever

8) The Hail Mary to tie the game at the end of regulation might have been one of the five best throws in the history of the game, as it was 55 yards in the air, against pressure, against the momentum of his body, and seemingly something that Rodgers does all the damn time now

7) We'd all like to thank Arians for that insane fade call with two minutes left, since we wouldn't get any of the later insanity without it

6) A year ago, everyone was convinced that Larry Fitzgerald was washed up in Arizona, so, um, we all know nothing

5) Rodgers is so good, he nearly won a road playoff game against a #2 seed with nothing but white guy WRs

4) Despite the high comedy of the officiating crew, honestly, probably one of the five best games you've ever seen

3) Larry Fitzgerald Sr. got to cover this game and ask his kid questions about having the best game of his life, while being the best player in franchise history, so, yeah, Larry's dad wins life

2) Packer Fan can grouse about multiple bad ref calls, poor luck on a defection, and the no-possession nature of NFL overtime, but it's not as if their defense made any number of possible picks and stops that might have ended this

1) It's going to be a darn shame when the Cardinals get trucked by the Seahawks-Panthers winner next week

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Top 10 NFC Divisional Playoff Ad Questions

Hard On Earth
10) Has anyone in this millennium ever been truly excited about eating food that costs $2?

9) Wouldn't people who are fearless at 50 refuse to join a retirement organization that's mostly about securing coupons?

8) How do hellish open floor office plans help to sell delivery services?

7) If Refund Season is so lucrative for H&R Block, why are their ads in black and white?

6) Can I buy a Kia without enjoying complex piano music?

5) Considering that younger people care much more about mobile devices, should AT&T really stress their history of phone work?

4) If I get insurance through Progressive, do I have to eat with a smarmy pile of paper?

3) Are only the relatives of military people able to have ridiculous businesses that serve unsatisfying small amounts of food?

2) If you bring beer to a chardonnay party, aren't you just really cheap and tone-deaf?

1) Why does Ford have to break so many stones, and does breaking stones help to sell trucks?

Top 10 Chiefs - Patriots Takeaways

Take Some More Time, Sir
10) Danny Amendola went head hunting with an absurd spear, but since he did it at his 4 yard line, it only cost the crafty Patriots 2 yards

9) Andy Reid's magical clock management skills prevented the team from being able to use running plays late in the firt half in the red zone, and that wasn't even his worst moment of clock management in the game

8) The Patriots always get a key turnover from their opponent in their wins, with RB4 Knile Davis doing the job this time

7) Jason Avant caught a deep third down, amazing everyone who (a) thought he was out of the league by now, and (b) didn't know he was allowed to run more than 10 yards downfield

6) This just in: when he's healthy, Rob Gronkowski is the most ridiculous TE weapon in NFL history

5) Down 15 midway through the third, Alex Smith made the play of his life to stay alive long enough to connect to Avant, leading to an eventual touchdown and the continuation of a trace amount of Drama

4) Chandler Jones heroically shook off a self-inflicted injury from synthetic marijuana to register a sack, so let's all celebrate him

3) The Chiefs got away with clear DPI with 10+ minutes left, so that the game could keep that Drama alive, as well as keep everyone in doubt about the legitimacy of NFL officiating

2) Just to show you how well the Patriots have sold their souls to Satan, the killshot play was a deflected throw on a play call that was so pointless and terrifying, Tom Coughlin thought it was stupid

1) As shown by middle throws and huddling with under two minutes left and down 14, Reid's ability to kill the clock while behind is unmatched in NFL history

Why Chip Kelly Isn't Going To Work In San Francisco, Either

Refried and Refraud
Now that the NFL's coaching carousel has stopped and Nero Kelly has found himself in a new perch, the same people who told us that the Eagles were wrong to fire a man for ample cause are here to tell us why it's all going to work out in the Bay Area.

Well, sure. There are few bets in the world better than It's Not Going To Work Out For Eagle Fan, and if the Chiefs wind up bouncing the Patriots out of the playoffs this weekend, there's a reasonable chance they would be favored to go to the Super Bowl. At that point, the Eagles will be wrong for bouncing Andy Reid for ample cause as well, and the world will get to continue having its New York-centric chuckle.

Philly Fan: 300+ years of getting peed on since we're not New York or DC, and being told it's rain. Also, that it's raining because God hates us, and that the rain is also God's pee, and everyone else is made much happier about that. If only You People weren't so negative and deserve it. Now lie back and think of how you are not NY or DC.

Sorry, tangent. It's wearisome, I know. Anyway, rather than continue to tell the same story, let's move on to why Nero isn't going to just turn around and rule the NFC West, shall we?

1) The NFC West is terrifying

Seattle is the two-time defending NFC champions, and might make it three. They have one of the best QBs in the game in Russell Wilson, and Wilson's just starting to enter his prime. They have a fantastic home field advantage, a defense that's starting to fade but is still among the league's best, and a front office that's hit on a very high number of picks and moves over the past few years. You probably don't really want to play these guys twice a year if you can help it.

Arizona is most people's odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl this year. They've been good for a while, and might have broken through with more luck around injuries. The offense is the most balanced and complete in the NFL, and while the coaching staff is old and the defense not entirely airtight, they make both of those elements work, and might still be on the upswing. The home field isn't as strong because the Arizona market is filled with transients, and the ownership has a history of family weirdness, but they are not a new contender or a paper tiger. Winning games from them in the next 2-3 years is not going to be very easy at all.

Los Angeles (nee St. Louis) is also clearly on the upswing. The defense has lots of high quality players, they might have the best RB in the game in Todd Gurley, and while they are still major pieces away from real contention, they'd be a playoff team in the right division. They are also likely to get an ill-gotten gain from moving away from a Midwestern dome to a new SoCal pleasure palace, along with tons of new screaming fans who will cheer a lot louder than the old abused ones did. Winning more than the occasional game from these guys is also going to be no cakewalk, and heaven help you if they ever find themselves a QB. Oh, and they also have an extra second round pick in this year's draft, thanks to some asshat that's making it tough on the Niners' new head coach.

So, enter SF into that. After the worst off-season in recent NFL history, the talent roster is as bare as any in the league. Sure, you've got a tolerable RB in Carlos Hyde, an interesting reclamation project in QB Colin Kaepernick, a maybe tolerable QB2 in the frisky Blaine Gabbert, a WR in Torrey Smith and a half dozen guys from the old good defense that can still play, along with some high picks in the upcoming draft. But *every* NFL team has some assets, and this isn't exactly a tremendous collection. Pair that up against this division, and Kelly could easily do the best job of his professional life and never get close to .500.

2) The Niner front office is still broken, and might be (even) worse than what Kelly left in Philly

Here's a fun fact. The Niners didn't tell Kaepernick they were hiring Kelly. Hell, why would you want to do that? He's only the broken asset that you just spent the last year messing with, and a mobile asset that might actually make Kelly's read option Cutting Edge of 2013 gimmickry work, but let him hear about it on Twitter like everyone else. You wouldn't want that guy to have hope or a lack of mind games at this point in his career, when you've made all of these smart moves leading up to now.

Honestly, if the Niners were to hire away Howie Roseman from the Eagles to room with Kelly in a wacky rom-com, it wouldn't surprise me at this point. We're talking about a franchise that ran off the only head coach that's had any degree of success in the past 10 years because too many people were giving him the credit, rather than the GM. We're talking about an organization that's turned their new yard into an albatross in less than two years, and who would cede the Bay Area to the freaking Raiders, if only the Raiders were bright enough to sit still and try to win games, rather than play Stadium Dickery.

I'm not sure the best coach in NFL history could win with this organization, in this division, at this time. And this just in...

3) Kelly's Not A Great Coach

Enough, for heaven's sake, about the Two 10 Win Seasons In His First Two Years nonsense. That also describes Ray Rhodes and Rick Kotite, and I don't see anyone hiring either of those guys, or anything particularly good happening for them in their professional lives after the hot start. (Kotite: 21-11 after two years as a coach, 19-45 the next four. Rhodes: 20-12 the first two years, 17-30 the next three.)

Are there Bill Belichickian aspects to Kelly that point to a resurgence following immediate fail? Sure. But if you look hard enough at *any* coach, you can trick yourself into seeing Belichick. Prickly with the media? Wow, what a unique attribute. Gamblers? That really narrows it down. Convinced of their own intellect, confident that their decision making is sound and superior, and ready to toss out the non-believers? Why not throw in mammals, vertebrates, oxygen breathers and carbon-based? It's like their twins!

Great coaches develop talent. Kelly didn't do that in three years in Philadelphia. Great coaches innovate and get better. Kelly's offense got more and more basic, and don't blame it all on QB Carousel; it's not like Mike Vick and Nick Foles, his first two signal callers, don't seem any more or less bright than Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford. Great coaches make things difficult on the opponent by using unexpected tactics. Kelly had great special teams that never faked, tempo offenses that didn't cause the opponent to do more than watch the ever-growing amount of similar tape, and defenses that almost never showed you even a hint of innovation. Beyond the tempo and sports science work that was great on Day 1 and a lot less interesting on Day 1,000, there was nothing new here.

Oh, and in terms of late-game management? The man sent in the punt team in the final game of his Eagles career, down 21 in the fourth quarter with 10 minutes left, on a manageable fourth down. Only an injury timeout by the opponent and the outrage of the dead-end crowd caused him to change that utterly indefensible on every level move. Does this sound like a guy who is going to turn it all around in Year Four and Stop Two in his post-college cash-out tour?

4) Kelly Is A Compulsive Liar, And The Lies Are Obvious, Pointless, and Self-Destructive

Evan Mathis wasn't coming to camp; ignore the social media photo of the man with a plane ticket in his hand, heading to the airport. DeSean Jackson was just too small and prone to leaked and likely fabricated stories about his background. Ryan Mathews was too hurt to carry the ball any more after the longest touchdown run of his life. Duce Staley was in charge of which RB was in the game, Ed Marynowitz was the GM, Kelly has no interest in managing personnel any more, and so on and so on.

Look, for the most part, I don't really care if my NFL HC lies, even a lot. I more or less assume that's going on a lot, because the HC *should* lie when it benefits the team, and convincing grown men to risk permanent injury to win games isn't exactly a profession for people of good conscience. But Kelly's lies were so common, so self-serving, and so transparently obvious that even football players could see through him. There's a reason why a decent defense turned into Swiss cheese in the second half of the year, and that reason is that when your manager lies all the time, you just don't want to do anything other than the bare minimum required to keep drawing a paycheck. That's what happened here, and it's going to happen again. Kelly is what he is, and has gotten to the station he's gotten to. He's not changing this aspect of himself; he's probably lied so long, and so often, about so many things that he's not even aware he's lying any more.

5) Always Bet On Fail

This weekend, eight teams will play for the right to continue their NFL season, while 24 other franchises will think about what might have been or what needs to happen for things to be different next year. Which means three out of four teams have, by most measures, had an unsuccessful season. Think about those 24 teams that are out, and with the occasional exception of mildly noble failures like Minnesota, the Jets, maybe DC and Houston, and if I really want to stretch the envelope, Tampa... well, over half of the league is really unhappy about how the season ended. That's why so many clubs run their coaches every year, and coaches are lucky to last more than three years. All of the players are eventually going to get hurt, and all of the coaches are eventually going to fail. For the most part, both events happen in about three to four years. We remember all of the exceptions to the rule, but that's all they are: exceptions.

Kelly doesn't have to be a liar and fraud to fail in SF. He doesn't have to squander Pro Bowl talent, fight with anyone in the locker room who shows signs of not being a total college mark for his methods, or neglect player development, especially around the lines. His schemes don't have to be shown as amateur hour against actual contenders, or have his teams turtle up with turnovers and complacency, because he doesn't promote, bench or motivate players terribly well to date.

All he's got to do to fail is not have teams that are better than 3 out of every 4 clubs, and achieve that standard not less than once every 2-3 years, from a start position that's one of the NFL's worst.

Betting on any coach to succeed is like betting against the house in blackjack.

Betting on a coach with crippling drawbacks, who just spent the last three years not winning in a vastly better competitive situation and talent level?

Well, that's like betting against the house in blackjack without looking at your cards.

It can be done, but you'd much rather have your money on the house, wouldn't you?

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Doug Pederson Hire: The Fix Was In

The coach as a young failure
There are times in one's life, as someone who consumes the NFL product, when you wonder what the point of the rules are.

Playoff teams, we are told, can not have their staff hires announced while they are in the playoffs. But what can happen? Well, sources can leak it, which is what appears to be going on here. So, well, OK then. The Eagles have no coach, but they've finished their interviews, and they know who they are going to hire. That guy. Over there. We'll just point at him, kind of, and nod when you say his name, but not say his name ourselves. Because We Follow The Rules.

Pederson is regarded with considerable skepticism by the fan base. He's never been a head coach before. He's been Andy Reid's pet since being brought in as a wholly inadequate stopgap QB before Donovan McNabb got the keys as a rookie. For years, he's been Reid's assistant, and has taken over offensive play calling for the Chiefs this year. So he was in the building from 2009 to 2012, with time spent as the offensive quality control coordinator and QB coach. He worked with Michael Vick, Vince Young and Nick Foles, and also worked with McNabb and Kevin Kolb before getting the QB coach gig.

From that history, we have developed a sense of who Pederson is. Especially when you combine this with the hallmarks of the Chiefs offense. Short throws, West Coast concepts, over-reliance on passing, rudimentary concepts, and basically, Jeff Lurie trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube and re-hire a younger, slimmer and less run-down Andy Reid. The only thing keeping many from open revolt is (a) even late era Reid seems good compared to Nero Kelly's end, and (b) the coaching candidates this year was just a festival of meh.

To which, the following points.

1) Why did this have to happen so fast?

The draft isn't for months, and summer camp, a while past that. You mean to tell me that the NFL season is so 24/7/365 that having a guy in the office for an extra week in January is going to manifest in wins and losses later?

2) Why did the search have to exclude, well, the other seven playoff teams?

I'm not saying that Josh McDaniels from New England or Sean McDermott from Carolina are going to be better head coaches. If we all knew what made for a good head coach, this entire enterprise wouldn't seem so pointless. But what I am wondering is...

3) Was this really an open position?

Tom Coughlin withdrew his name from consideration, probably because he sensed that the fix was in and wanted to make it look like it was his call, not the team's. Hue Jackson never comes to town, and the club let Adam Gase leave after his interview. Sources peed all over poor Duce Staley as Rooney Rule tokenism, not that any ex-RB ever becomes a head coach. Pat Shurmur is probably a courtesy interview only, because he was your interim guy. He may or may not keep an OC gig, depending on whether Pederson and the front office decide to buy in on QB Sam Bradford. (If Pederson is truly looking for another Alex Smith, maybe not; Bradford isn't terribly mobile, as we've noted. I'm not sure there's another Smith type on the market, not because Smith is all that special, but because QBs are just impossible to seemingly staff right now. Anyway.)

Finally, this. If Lurie's takeaway from the Kelly debacle is that he was wrong to go all-in, then the damage that's been done by the fraud isn't just going to extend to the 2-3 year window of most NFL dumpster fires. Instead, it's going to be with the club until the man goes off to that great windmill in the sky.

Reid got to be the best coach in franchise history by coinciding his time with DC Jim Johnson, and running roughshod over a down period in the NFC. Once Johnson started to fade and the NFC picked up with more contenders than just the occasional NFC South team that got hot at the right time, the club leveled off to NFC lEast pretender, with no playoff wins during the Obama Administration. Whether that was a matter of Johnson's passing, Reid losing his joie de vie following his family tragedies, or just what happens when QB1 gets hurt and the defense never replaces S Brian Dawkins, it's all pretty much water under the bridge. The point is that Lurie had the success that he had going all-in with Reid, just as he had some success in the first half of all-in with Kelly.

Success in the NFL doesn't come with iron clad rules. You don't have to have a Magic Dictator Strongman, a la Bill Belichick. You don't have to have Super Savvy GM, a la Ozzie Newsom, or hire the perfect retread coach, as with Seattle and Pete Carroll, or Arizona with Bruce Arians. Even my preferred method, which is to go hard with no life young guy a la Mike Tomlin, has its limits, because plenty of those guys don't do squat, either.

What is true with all winning hires is that the team commits to the coach's vision, if not his ideas on drafting, trades and free agency. Half-measures, making sure everyone gets along with Lurie's pet Howie, and a premium being put on everyone being super nice to each other... is just throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Kelly not making nice with the Philly media was his only endearing quality, honestly.

So, welcome, Doug Pederson. My deepest hope is that the fact that no one's very thrilled to have you here means you'll work out great, since everyone was fully bought into Kelly, and you are the ultimate Not Kelly. I'm sure that we can all get behind fewer turnovers and putting the defense in a better position to succeed.

But if the ceiling is now 10 wins and an easy playoff out with Game Manager QB making vanilla throws in a very established offensive philosophy that has been run in the NFL for decades, while everyone feels good about how professional everything is now, and how everyone likes each other?

Well... you wouldn't happen to know someone who can convince Lurie to sell the club, would you? Since he's only got two settings, and both of them go nowhere?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Why I Haven't Written About The NFL's LA Return (Yet)

In my social media, I've had people ask me what I thought about the NFL going to LA. They've wondered, given how I've seen games in St. Louis and Oakland, lived in the Raiders' backyard for seven years, and have a brother who has been in greater San Diego for over half of his life, why I haven't had something to say about this.

And the answer is... because it's didn't seem like anything I'd have to add was anything more than brutally obvious.

There is no good reason why the NFL should have left LA in the first place. There is no good reason why the NFL needs to go back now.

(Note that I said good reason there. In terms of bad reasons, which is to say Straight Short Term Cash, there's plenty of reasons. But let's move on.)

The percentage of revenue brought to the NFL by tickets and stadium sales, while substantial, is chicken feed. The only money that really matters is broadcast cash, because that dwarfs everything else. Which will not change one whit by the NFL returning to LA, unless you count the nebulous benefit of a more local place to wine and dine LA power players.

Which hasn't mattered in the past two decades, and doesn't really matter now. The NFL is the last bankable mass market media play. They could play all of their games in a domed sound stage in Alberta to no spectators, and still pull in ratings that crush everything else on television in the U.S.

Am I overstating the case? Not really. People who cheer as if their lives depend on it have either been priced out of the yard, set up to be ratted out by social media shamers, or driven to insanity by decades of gougery. To go to a game now is to show a marked lapse in judgment, not to mention a preference for being at a game to actually watching it. My home screen, thanks to technology and coverage (note: not analysis), is better in every possible way than being in the building. Any building, any where. (And that includes booths, because even the cushiest booth requires the security patdown to get in, being surrounded by people that should make you ashamed to be a mammal, and the hours of parking hassles and traffic woes.)

The NFL supports games in a Wisconsin suburb (Green Bay). It supports games in Western New York, in an area with no significant corporate support (Buffalo). It supports games in a single market in nowhere Floria (Jacksonville), just because. Games are played in London for nearly half a season now, so the NFL can time shift more games to an unclaimed Sunday morning time zone, in its eternal quest to play every game in its own time slot. It supports two teams in burbland New Jersey, rather than the actual New York City area, just because. It has stadiums in burbland Boston and burbland DC, not the actual towns, just because. It's played games on a college campus in nowhere Minnesota for the past two years. The overall health of the league has not been affected at all. San Francisco fan now travels, or more accurately does not travel, 50+ miles away from the city to a new disaster, rather than stay in the old disaster.

Where the stadiums are does not matter. It hasn't mattered for a really long time. What the stadium is like has *never* mattered, because even the most rabid fan just isn't there often or long enough.

So, Ram and Charger and eventually Raider Fan who feels betrayed and used? You are, actually, now one of the lucky ones. You don't have to put up with these people being near you any more. If you also ducked out on a bill for a billionaire's playroom, so much the better. You can still root for the laundry, or not, and have as much reason as the day before.

The owners don't care what city they are nominally attached to. The players don't, either. So why do you?

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Spread 'Em: NFL Division Playoff Picks

Good And Tasty
After a wildcard weekend where the road teams went unde- feated, there will be all kinds of What It All Means punditry from the usual suspects. I'm even prone to it, because I believe that true home field advantages have mostly disappeared in the use of so many new parks like Lincoln Financial in Philadelphia, the Jerry Jones Mausoleum in Dallas, and San Francisco's new palace in exile in Santa Clara. But the real story of the weekend was that two division winners from terrible divisions -- the AFC South and the NFC East -- got deservedly trucked, and two other home teams lost coin flip moments of extreme weirdness, between Jeremy Hill and Vontaze Burfict's act in Cincy, and Blair Walsh missing a chip shot in Minnesota.
Something more telling happened; for the most part, the offenses went AWOL. Take a look at the post-season leaders over at and you'll see one out of eight QBs over 300 yards, no RB over 100, and only three guys over 100 yards receiving. If you play playoff fantasy, you won or lost with a points total that was damn near trivial, honestly.
This week, the home teams, for the most part, are going to reassert themselves, because it's just too hard to overcome the rest and the travel. And with only seven games left in the entire NFL season, it's a great time to get a little excitement on the side, assuming you haven't been using this column to do that all along. My Top Sportsbooks has New England vs. Arizona as the current favorites to meet up at Superbowl 50. Do I agree? You'll need to read on to find out.
And with that... on to the picks!
* * * * *
Kansas City at NEW ENGLAND (-5)
The case for KC: Balanced team, with what might be the best defense in the conference right now. TE Travis Kelce is the best in the game that's not named Gronkowski. QB Alex Smith presents real problems with his mobility, and RB Spencer Ware was beastly in last week's wipeout of Houston. They played early and trucked their opponent, so the usual bye week advantage might not be as large for the home team. HC Andy Reid is experienced, and put together a great scheme to neutralize DL JJ Watt last week. Have won since October, and still have No One Believes In Us momentum. This team doesn't usually beat themselves with turnovers, and that's a huge part of the equation in traveling to Foxboro. Special teams, as shown by the first play of last week's game, can be a big plus.
The case against: Reid's record in big playoff games is atrocious, and he's generally gotten schooled by Pats HC Bill Belichick. Their schedule to get here has been cotton-soft, including the last game against a Texans team that got one of the worst QB performances in playoff history. I'm just not sure they've got a high enough ceiling. WR Jeremy Maclin is unlikely after a scary injury last week, and without him, the entire field shrinks hard.
The case for New England: At home, rested, with a likelihood of their main offensive weapons getting back online after injury. Defense is better than most recent teams. QB Tom Brady is still a tactical monster, and able to use tempo and smarts to get extra plays and margins for error. They run the best pick plays in the business, and routinely get the better of the refs. Home crowd is loud as long as they are winning, and special teams usually don't make big mistakes.
The case against: Just might be running on empty, in that they spent the second half of the year losing to teams like Philadelphia, the Jets and Miami. Serious protection issues for Brady have made him look very ordinary for the past few weeks. RB Stephen Jackson is the latest retread, and just isn't as good as the earlier options. When this team has lost in past years, it's been to physical defenses with running games, and that describes this Chiefs team.
The pick: Had Maclin gotten through the game healthy, and if Reid didn't spend the first half keeping the Texans in it through oddly conservative play calling, I just might be calling for the upset here. But, well, both of those things happened, and I just get the sense that this Patriots team has a couple more wins in them, especially if Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman are 100%.
Patriots 26, Chiefs 20

Green Bay at ARIZONA (-7.5)

The case for Green Bay: Got on track on offense in a big way against DC. Have the best QB in the tournament in Aaron Rodgers. RB Eddie Lacy got through the game unscathed and looked strong. Defense can bring pressure and make plays, and when they do, it tends to snowball. WR Randall Cobb has come alive a bit in the past few weeks, and WR Devonte Allen made a big catch that might show he's rebounding from a down year. HC Mike McCarthy doesn't get rattled. Team is playing with house money at this point, having bounced back from a poor end to the regular season to get to the final 8. Fan base travels.
The case against: Got absolutely hammered in this same match-up just three weeks ago, with the offensive line getting depantsed on a routine basis. WRs just aren't getting open unless the play is extended. RBs have been fumble-prone, and Rodgers will make mistakes by trying to carry the entire team on his back. Defense can't get off the field against good teams, especially if the passing attack isn't super-short. Fan base won't travel as well for this one, since front-running Cardinal Fan isn't going to sell this ticket as easily as they did in Week 16.
The case for Arizona: Just the most complete team in the tournament. QB Carson Palmer has had his best year, and RB David Johnson might be the best RB left in the playoffs. WR corps is the NFC's best, with speed and possession in equal elements. WR Larry Fitzgerald has morphed into Late Era Hines Ward, with the nastiness and blocking ability to match, while still making back-breaking plays in the midfield. Defense can rev it up nicely, especially when they are rested. Defensive backfield was the best in the league before the injury to FS Tyronn Mathieu, and is still pretty damned good. Special teams make plays. Coaching staff is experienced and ruthless.
The case against: Had their worst loss of the year in Week 17 when they still had something to play for, as Seattle trucked them at home. Palmer is turnover prone historically. Defense isn't the same after losing the Honey Badger, and there's always the sense with this Cardinal team that they are regular season beasts and playoff babies, without the true ceiling required to win it all.
The pick: It won't be as easy as Week 16, but it won't have to be to cover this number. The Pack just doesn't have the linemen necessary to hang with the big boys right now.
Cardinals 34, Packers 24

SEATTLE (+2.5) at Carolina

The case for Seattle: Best defense in the conference. Most and best playoff experience. QB Russell Wilson just wins games, regardless of other aspects of what's going on around him. Running game may get a spark if RB Marshawn Lynch is back and healthy this week. Can just turn an opponent into an incredibly limited outfit, because the secondary is just lockdown to everything but tight ends, and they are well coached enough that you'd have to think the TE problem isn't going to bite them again. For a physical team, they also tend to get deference from the refs.
The case against: While they were the better team in their win against Minnesota, they weren't by very much, and referee malfeasance notwithstanding, they are incredibly lucky to be here. Defense keeps fading in the fourth quarter. If WR Doug Baldwin is erased by CB Josh Norman, entire passing tree could be challenged. Lost to this team not every long ago, at home, with a damaging fourth quarter collapse.
The case for Carolina: QB Cam Newton has been the best in the league for most of the year. TE Gregg Olsen destroyed Seattle last time, so if Seattle does focus on him, it might make it easier for the WRs to get loose. RB Jonathan Stewart has been a horse. Defensive front seven was great for most of the year, and the coaching staff uses Newton's unique gifts without fear or reservation. At home, off a bye, against a team that froze their ass off in a Sunday game, which is probably worth more than a few points on its own.
The case against: Didn't play their best football late. Limited at WR with young and erratic players, and prone to drops against pressure. Newton can get rattled into bad decisions. Defensive secondary, and this includes Norman, isn't up to the standard of the front seven, and the front seven showed signs of wear over the course of the year.
The pick: It's a feel thing, but I think Seattle has already played its bad playoff game, and is still standing. I think they come into this one with all kinds of bad tape to look at during the week, not to mention the earlier loss, and play their best game of the year. As for the Panthers, I just don't think they've got the ceiling to match, and while home and rest is a potent advantage at this time of the year, it rarely goes four for four.
Seahawks 27, Panthers 24

Pittsburgh at DENVER (-7)

The case for Pittsburgh: Playing with house money. Have gotten production out of the RBs no matter who has taken the rock. Best set of WRs in the NFL, and it's not even close. Defense is physical and can get after the QB. Better on special teams than usual. Have won on the road, and have playoff experience all over the roster, without being particularly old. May be the AFC team that no one wants to play, especially if QB Ben Roethlisberger gets hot. Might be a team of destiny, in that they needed monster help to even get into the playoffs in the first place.
The case against: Defense is prone to stunning lapses. Are extremely lucky to be here, with serious protection issues on offense, and a raft of injuries at the running back position. Play calling can get head-scratchingly odd, and they've just been through a 60-minute fistfight, while their opponent was resting.
The case for Denver: At home, off a bye, with the best defense in the conference should be enough. QB Peyton Manning is as healthy as he's going to be in this stage of his career. Running game has shown signs of life, especially recently. WRs have pedigree, if not a ton of recent production. Solid coaching staff and good special teams. True home-field advantage, especially with altitude issues.
The case against: Manning is clearly playing the last games of his career, and just doesn't have the arm strength or adjustments to avoid turnovers. Defense might be a little overrated, in that they didn't seem to be as good at the end of the year. The defense gave up a big lead against this team in Week 15.
The pick: The record says shootout, but I'm not so sure. This line could change substantially based on the health of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger; here's a link that's going to be filled with updates on that. But even if the QB is able to make the start, there's just too much that makes me worry that he won't be able to play to his full potential. Rest is just too important at this time of the year.
Broncos 31, Steelers 20

Last week: 3-1

Season: 138-115-3

Career: 756-747-48

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