Monthly Archives: January 2008

Following the tattered hoodie to greatness

I’m not much into making predictions.

I’m more of a wishful thinking kind of guy.

So, while I think that the Patriots are going to indeed become the first 19-0 team in NFL history, I’m wishing that they pound the Giants so bad that the gap in Michael Strahan’s teeth closes up because it’s too embarrassed to remain open any longer.

Truthfully, I think it’s going to be a close game, and that the Giants are a worthy adversary, but once again, I stay more on the “I hope” side of the spectrum. As in “I hope the Giants are down by 35 at halftime.”

Yes, I have personal NFL allegiances that require me to root against the Giants, but the Patriots are head and shoulders above everyone in the game, and I’d hate to see them falter when it matters most.

I don’t know if they’re the best team of all time or not — that would be a post-Super Bowl conversation — but they’re the best team of right now.

In my 20 years as a football fan (and six weeks as a professional sportswriter), I have never seen a team so dominant, so explosive, so calm under pressure and most importantly, so focused.

Does Bill Belichick do anything wrong? If you’re judging him by wins and losses, then obviously not, but it goes beyond that.

I’ve never seen a coach get the absolute best from every one of his 53 players the way grumpy Bill does.

In interviews, players go on and on about Belichick’s attention to detail, but I feel like that’s just the tip of the iceberg. His meticulousness is well documented, but how does he get that same rock-steady focus from his assistants and players?

That is truly the biggest marvel of the Patriots’ season. The way Belichick’s attitude and commitment to winning is reciprocated throughout his team without as much as a hiccup.

Obviously, Belichick’s attention to detail has gotten him in some trouble, but those of you who are rooting against him because he’s a “cheater” need to let it go.

I’ve got some harsh news for you. The Patriots were going to beat the Jets anyway. We’ll never know if New Engand was using those tapes during the course of the game or not, but even if they were, the Jets were 4-12 this year for a reason.

Video scandal be damned, Belichick is getting the ultimate compliment from his contemporaries around the league.

Gillette Stadium is turning into a head coach factory.

First, Charlie Weiss and Romeo Crennel. Then Eric Mangini. Now even Josh McDaniels, at 31, is expected to get a look from the Redskins (though to be fair, who hasn’t gotten a look from the Redskins).

General managers around the NFL want coaches who worked for Belichick.

By the time the Bill Belichick era is all said and done, he could make the Bill Walsh coaching tree look like a shriveled up bonsai bush.

As for the Super Bowl, Belichick has his work cut out for him. I would expect that the Patriots will try to give the Giants’ offense as many looks as possible out of that three-four set, and try to use their speed to get to Eli Manning.

I wouldn’t even be surprised to see big Vince Wilfork and Jarvis Green move around from gap to gap on the D-line to keep New York’s offensive line guessing. They’ll need to, because that front five of the Giants has really come together down the stretch.

I’m sure Tom Brady and the boys on offense will get theirs, but that Pro Bowl line in front of him will have to protect him better than they did in their week 17 win against the Giants.

As usual though, I’d expect Belichick to go into the game knowing something that Tom Coughlin doesn’t. I’d expect the Patriots to be more focused and better prepared, no matter how focused and prepared the Giants may be.

Most of all though, I hope — not predict — that the Patriots come out and be the Patriots, and beat the Giants into oblivion.

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Mooching off the West Coast tree

Redskins fans have always had a flair for overreaction to both the good and the bad, but the ever-secretive coaching search of 2008 has sent them off the deep end.

Owner Dan Snyder gave fans yet another reason to overreact this weekend when Washington Post beat reporter (acting more along the lines of a private detective) Jason La Canfora hinted that Snyder may be pursuing former 49ers and Lions coach Steve Mariucci.

Are you serious? Another name in the pile? Is this ever going to end? When is Snyder going to realize that- wait… who?

Steve Mariucci?

I can dig it. More than Jim Fassel, anyway.

The popular choice among fans and players was Gregg Williams, for continuity’s sake.

Williams is out of the mix now, but Mariucci makes a whole heap of sense in a much different way.

Mariucci is a purveyor of the West Coast Offense, much like new offensive coordinator Jim Zorn.La Canfora went on to highlight all the connections between the Redskins and Mariucci in his blog, and it’s mostly speculation, but if it’s continuity you want, then Mariucci is right up your alley.

Conventional wisdom would say that going from Al Saunders’ freakishly complicated offense to a West Coast system would require an overhaul of personnel, but the truth is, the Redskins already have many of the pieces in place.

For those of you who may not understand completely, let me explain the little bit I know about the West Coast offense.

Bill Walsh designed the West Coast offense to make a short passing game an extension of the running game.

Instead of handing off so a running back can run behind five blockers trying to block six defenders, a short pass is thrown to a ball carrier behind two blockers, trying to block three defenders.

It’s a pass-first offense, but not in the way the Colts or Patriots have a pass-first offense.

Just like every other type of NFL offense, once the defense is committed to stopping the short pass/run, you hit em’ with the deep ball.

It gets much more extravagant than that, but there’s a reason I’m a sportswriter and not a football coach.

Still, I know enough about the x’s and o’s of it to know that a West Coast Offense wouldn’t necessarily mean mass roster turnover for the Skins.

Start with the line. Chris Samuels, Casey Rabach and Pete Kendall are all guys who are notorious for getting up the field efficiently and effectively.

As last season wore on, the Redskins’ screens, hitches and other plays that get blockers out in the open became more and more effective.

During the four-game winning streak at the end of the regular season, Clinton Portis became more of threat as a receiver than ever before in his career, finishing with 47 receptions for 389 yards — both career highs.

Factors like the salary cap, age and Joe Gibbs’ departure will probably result in offseason changes to the line, but the players who do return should fit right in.

The receiving core, while still lacking a tall receiver (I feel ya, Roethlisberger) may go largely unchanged should Mooch make his move to D.C.

Santana Moss can probably play in any system as long as he’s healthy, but he’s always been great at turning short passes into big gains, which is one of the purest elements of a West Coast system.

Antwaan Randle El could thrive under Mariucci as well, but traditionally bigger receivers are necessary to turn a West Coast offense into a well-oiled machine.

The thing that should really excite Redskins fans about the prospect of Mooch being the next head coach is the prospect of Jason Campbell being the next Donovan McNabb, Jeff Garcia, Matt Hasselbeck or (dare I say it?) Joe Montana.

Campbell has always stressed publicly that he wants to spread the ball around to as many receivers as possible. Well, if Mariucci is his coach, that’s exactly what he’ll be doing.

Plus, the Redskins already have a core of versatile players. Joe Gibbs always sought after guys who had wide-ranging skill sets. Jack-of-all-trades players like Mike Sellers, Chris Cooley, Mike Pucillo and Lorenzo Alexander will all come in handy when trying to spread the ball around.

From what I’ve read and heard so far, it seems that Mooch would be better received by fans as a head coach than Fassel, although so would a life-size cardboard cutout of Mark Rypien, so I guess that’s not saying much.

Mariucci took the 49ers to the playoffs four of his six seasons in San Francisco, and he still has a overall winning record as a head coach, (72-67) despite a dismal stint in Detroit.

Much like die-hard burgundy-and-golders were willing to overlook Williams’ woes in Buffalo, they should look past Mooch’s struggles in Detroit. (If you think winning in Buffalo or Cincinnati is hard, try working for Matt Millen)

Even so, let’s remember that Mariucci has not been mentioned publicly as a part of the Redskins’ coaching search (though neither was Joe Gibbs in 2004).

It’s all guesswork and rumors up to this point, and to be perfectly honest, La Canfora’s coverage of the coaching search has been less than accurate.

The truth is, even if Mariucci doesn’t get the job, Zorn will probably be running the West Coast Offense.

Now that Williams is out of the picture though, there may only be one available coach who can prevent Redskins fans from going head first off the Woodrow Wilson bridge by the masses, and that’s Mooch.

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Woe is the Leafs

It’s time for an outsider’s point of view.

And for the first time in a long time, it’s the same as that of the rabid Toronto media’s.

It’s time for the the Toronto Maple Leafs to blow it all up. I’m not talking about selling off a few big contracts before the trade deadline, either.

I’m talking about sending a scud missile of trades and firings that will level the organization, and make way for whoever the new G.M. might be to rebuild it the way he wants.

I know, everyone in the Toronto media says this every year – even when the team is in playoff contention, but this time around it’s different. This team is just not good enough.

I pride myself on being more level-headed than Damien Cox, Bob McKenzie and the rest of the Canadian Media All-Stars that call for the dismantling of the whole franchise every time they lose a game, but I just got back from watching them lose 2-1 to the Capitals, and this team is alarmingly uninspired.

Yes, they are only three games under .500, but the talent is not there, and it’s not going to magically show up on the stick of Matt Stajan or Pavel Kubina.

Mats Sundin is still a great player and a remarkable leader, but he can’t carry his team anymore.

Compare him to the top scorers on other teams in the Eastern Conference, and he doesn’t measure up. Lecavailler, Ovechkin, Kovalchuk and Crosby can all carry their teams.

Other teams like Montreal, New York (Rangers, that is), New Jersey and Philly all have a few guys they can call on for offense.

Big Mats is stuck somewhere in the middle a la Olli Jokinen. He’s not the elite scorer he once was, but the Leafs didn’t give him the type of support system he needs to win.

He’s a little older and a tad slower than he was in his prime, but the bigger problem lies in the fact that after Sundin, Hall Gill was the best player on the ice for the Leafs tonight.

And can someone please tell me why Jiri Tlusty hasn’t been sent back down yet? I didn’t realize that two goals in your NHL debut entitled you to 25 games of wasting perfectly good shifts on the top line.

The young Czech has followed up his Toews-like opener with one goal and a painful minus-5 rating since.

I can hear the Leafs fans already: “What about Antropov? He’s having a great year!” or “Wellwood, McCabe, Ponikarovsky and Coliacovo are all injured, right now. That’s why they’re losing, you dumb American.”

Yeah, they’ve got some good players. Sundin and Antropov are playing well, and Kaberle is great on the blue line. (Even though his offensive numbers have taken a hit)

But Chad Kilger, John Poll, Andy Wozniewski, Ian White and Boyd Devereaux are not the guys you want playing in 60-80 games a year.

And, I know it may hurt to admit it, but it’s time for Leafs nation to come to grips with the sheer and brutal reality that Darcy Tucker sucks.

Yes, he’s fast, and it was commendable the way he stuck up for Jason Blake in the Sean Avery fiasco, but he serves no nightly purpose for this team. He flat-out sucks.

Should Paul Maurice go too? I don’t know. Probably. I think he’s a good coach, and gets as much as he can out of a little talent, but why not let him be a good coach somewhere else. Bring in someone who can develop talent, not just manage it.

The Maple Leafs need to start over.

The next two NHL entry drafts are deeper than Ted Rogers’ pockets, so why not load up on picks? Find a young star to build the team around. (I promised myself I wouldn’t mention John Tavares in this post, so that thought ends there.)

I’m sure there are still several Leafs fans in denial, (I can’t wait to read the comments in the coming days) but this team is hanging around the bottom of the conference.

John Ferguson made a mess, and Cliff Fletcher should be as swift as he can in starting the cleanup process.

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The war on [Sports] terrorism

A few years ago when Gary Sheffield called Major League Baseball’s ongoing steroid investigation a “Witch hunt”, I assumed he was just being the self-pitying, antagonistic Gary Sheffield that everyone has come to know and despise.After Monday’s congressional hearing on the issue of performance enhancing drugs in baseball, I tend to agree with Sheff.It’s become apparent that Commissioner Bud Selig’s spirited efforts to make baseball drug-free are nothing more than a series of blame games.

Roger Clemens on 60 minutes, The baseball hall of fame snubbing Mark McGuire, Barry Bonds facing federal perjury charges and now the investigation into Miguel Tejada’s conversations with federal prosecutors leads me to believe that nothing has been done at all to clean up baseball.

The media, the hall of fame, MLB and even the government are simply looking for scape goats, not solutions.

Will catching Tejada – a former AL MVP – in a lie four years ago discourage a high school baseball player from using a banned substance before the start of the season?

Will the baseball hall of fame’s inflated ego and sense of self-righteousness stop a pitcher from injecting himself with HGH when he’s rehabbing from Tommy John surgery?

Will an outspoken columnist at a local newspaper who burns Roger Clemens in effigy prevent a minor leaguer from taking something to put a little more crank in his swing, so he can make it to the show?

No.

The only way to clean up the game is through the education of young players and the testing of current ones. While I certainly don’t have a clue as to how Major League Baseball, or any other sport for that matter, can make such an ideal a reality, I do know that making villains out of players will get baseball nowhere.

Was I the only one stunned by the utter irrelevance of the Mitchell report? Was that all the former senator had for us after nearly two years of investigating? Does anyone really care that Lenny Dykstra or Mo Vaughan used steroids or HGH or B-12 or hydro-andro-anobolic-hormone-tri-glucocimine-ichiro-hormone-sulfide?

Why is everyone involved in this process afraid to look to the future? Isn’t the point of spending all this time and money to improve the game in the future?

I sure hope it is, because no matter how hard they try (and they’re trying mighty hard), they can’t go back in time and stop it from happening.

One sports fan told me the Mitchell report would discourage the use of performance-enhancing drugs (that term is beginning to sound an awful lot like “Weapons of mass destruction”) because of the embarrassment caused for the players named.

It’s almost sad how much credit we give ourselves as fans and media. We’re at the point where we think athletes care more about our perception of them than they do their own lives.

A little embarrassment to someone who hasn’t stepped on a baseball diamond in five years is not going to stop an active player from doping. If we as fans and media think it will, we need to come down from our pedestal, because it is way to high up.

I’m not saying that former senator Mitchell didn’t have good intentions, but his investigation has just turned into another tool for sports terrorists to use.

Some good has come from this huge mess we call the steroids era. Efforts are now being made to educate kids and amateur athletes about the effects of doping. And there is finally testing in Major League Baseball. While the testing program isn’t perfect, at least it’s there.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, we always want someone to be the bad guy. Sports terrorists want a commissioner to fire, a player to prosecute and a number to put an asterisk beside.

In today’s society, we love to look outside ourselves to say what’s wrong with the world, never looking in the mirror. We like to document the flaws and foibles of other people so we can feel good about ourselves. Sports fans are no different.

Neither is Major League Baseball. Until MLB gets it’s priorities in order, the steroid era will loom on.

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