Friday, March 31, 2006

Packers owe Favre

The Brett Favre saga is getting tiresome. Should he stay or should he go? Does he owe the Packers a decision before the draft? Is he hurting the team?

The fact is Favre has given the Packers more than they have given him. He restored that team to glory and has been the embodiment of everything good about football. He's a throwback player who Vince Lombardi would have adored. No, he's not the greatest quarterback to play the game, but he's one of the best pure football players to ever take the field.

The Packers are being the bad guys here. They don't want Favre to come back. They know he's still got a solid season or two in him, but it's going to take them a season or two beyond that to become competitive again. They need to move on, but they don't want to alienate fans by telling Favre that he no longer fits into their plan.

Favre, on the other hand, wants to play. That's why he hasn't officially retired. The reason he appears ambivalent is because he knows that the Packers aren't going to be competitive and he doesn't want his last season or two to be spent playing for a 7-9 team. Favre wants one more crack at winning it all. He wants to get to one more Super Bowl so he can atone for a subpar performance against the Broncos a nearly decade ago.

Favre doesn't want to demand a release. That would offend the fans and possibly hurt people in the organization. Favre doesn't want to have to explain that he is giving up on the Packers. And he shouldn't have to. They have given up on him by failing to surround Brett with the kind of players who can win a title. The team has become mediocre and Favre is tired. Tired of getting knocked around. Tired of players dropping passes. Tired of losing. The Packers know Favre wants out. They also know he won't demand his release, so they are playing chicken with him. They want him to quit. It's a low class move.

The Packers owe Favre more. They owe their fans more. The best course of action to take is to let Favre know that his services will always be appreciated but that the team has to build for the future and it's not in anybody's best interest if Favre stays. Wish the man well, and let him know that whatever he does he will always be a Packer. Retire his number, build a statue and send him on his merry way with your blessings. It would be highly appropriate to advise him to play for a legitimate contender and encourage Packers fans to cheer Brett on as he pursues the glory that the Packers simply aren't ready to attain. Take the high road. There's no shame in letting your favorite son go off on his own to seek that one last date with destiny. Forcing him to stay put or retire is selfish.

Sadly, this only demonstrates that the Packers, in spite of being publicly owned and operated, are no better than the other teams out there. It's all about the marketing. Instead of doing the right thing and showing a little integrity, they are putting all of the pressure on the shoulders of the one player who has done so much for them. Favre has never missed a game, he's played through physical and emotional pain. Favre has stepped up and taken so many hits for the Packers...It's time that the Packers stepped up and take a hit for him.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Cinderella Stories will become the norm...

George Mason has stormed into the Final Four, capturing the imaginations of sports fans all over the country. Upsets happen every year, a double digit seed always sneaks into the Sweet Sixteen and sometimes teases us by advancing into that Elite Eight, but reality always brings us back down to Earth and the Final Four rarely entertains the team wearing the Cinderella slipper.

George Mason clawed through stiff competition, breaking through to the Final Four by beating a top seeded Connecticut team that was favored to win the whole tournament. Every team George Mason faced was ranked higher than they were but they won each game convincingly. They didn't sneak past sleep-walking giants to get to Indy, they played solid basketball and exploited each foes weaknesses with expert precision. They even suffered a let down against UConn when they allowed the Huskies to tie the game, but instead of folding under the pressure they stood tall and won a game most teams would have lost in the overtime period.

Some experts are taking a little bit away from George Mason by pointing out the fact that this tournament field was exceptionally young and rather inexperienced. The teams weren't very deep and the mid majors had a better chance to dominate this year because the rest of the NCAA has been decimated by the early entries the NBA has whisked away. These analysts think that George Mason's miraculous run is a fluke.

There's something to that argument. Gone are the days that Duke, UConn and North Carolina will start the same five players two or three years in a row. Players are going to leave early. The fact that the NBA is so hungry for young talent will actually encourage more players to sign with the mid-majors in hopes of getting more playing time. The NBA is requiring all players to wait a year after high school before being eligible for the draft so the NCAA won't be losing marquee talent right out of high school, but those top notch players aren't going to be enamored by the legacy of the traditional powers. They'll look for schools that are promising immediate playing time. Many of those players will probably stay close to home.

It's no fluke. The playing field is leveled and the mid majors hold the advantage because they are used to having to play by the players' rules. They've had to make exceptions and change plans in midstream. It's the Duke's and North Carolina's of the world who will struggle. Talent is already diluted, there's not that much separating the teams anymore. The best players in the game get snatched up by the NBA leaving teams trying to rebuild. The advantage goes to the teams that recruit players who need to develop or the teams who embrace the one and done star. As the big teams struggle to adjust to a recruiting climate that has players looking at college as a one year delay in their quest for glory, guys like Coach K aren't going to capitulate and the top players will opt to play for a program that embraces their presence for one season.

The selection committee will still give credit to the old guard and the traditional powers will remain in top seeds, but upsets will become the norm. A number 1 seed doesn't mean what it used to. The fact that there are no number 1 seeds remaining in this year's tournament speaks volumes as to how the shift in power has already begun.

Some see it as an aberration. They claim that this is a down year and that the power conferences and traditional contenders will hold sway for years to come. That's not true. The fact is, this is the tip of the iceberg and the big name programs will see themselves frozen out of the tournament more and more each year.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Best and Worst of NFL Signings already in.

Even though there are still deals to be made, the best and worst moves of the NFL off season are already behind us. Unless the San Diego Charges trade all their picks to draft Reggie Bush, it's unlikely any horrendous decisions will be made in the draft. Free Agency is a bigger deal. The players on the market are proven and there is a standard against which their value can be measured.

The Free Agent market is more entertaining because it's you can predict which teams are going to make a splash with their acquisitions. The draft is a huge crap shoot. Nobody knows which rookie is going to rise to the challenge of being an impact player. There are no unexpected holdouts. Free agents know their market value and they sign with the teams of their choosing.

There's still some activity pending, but we are confident in our projections and feel comfortable in declaring the winners and losers.

Best Team Improvement: Browns

This year the Cleveland Browns were aggressive, bringing in LeCharles Bentley to fortify a much improved line will bolster a surprisingly effective running game and open up the passing game for Charlie Frye. Joe Jurevicius is coming home after a strong performance last year and should be able to hold the fort down while Braylon Edwards recovers from a knee injury. Defensively the acquisition of Willie McGinest will stabilize that transition to the New England-inspired 3-4 Romeo Crennel wants to install. Ted Washington will be a big plus as well. The Browns might contend for the AFC North title thanks in part to the Steelers losing a playmaker in Randle El and the Bengals starting the season with their QB struggling with a bum knee.

Worst: Patriots

Of course that brings us to the worst performance by a team. Early indications point to New England. Sure, people have been counting New England out for years, but this off season looks bad. Rumor has it that the Patriots are looking to clear enough cap room to bring in Lavar Arrington which is a departure from the M.O. previously employed to win as a team. Lavar will command big bucks and bring in a big ego. Not only are the patriots bleeding talent, they might be losing chemistry.

Best Individual Move: TIE Saints and Dolphins
Some people are excited about Edgerrin James heading to Arizona. Big Deal. Edge wasn't nearly as critical to the Colts as people like to think. That team enjoys regular season success because they have a great line and a wicked passing attack. As long as they can find a back that can run routes and catch passes they'll be fine. The Cardinals, however, won't be. Do they really think that Kurt Warner still has what it takes? And what does it matter with that line? The Cardinals are going to learn a tough lesson once the season opens. Never spend big money on a running back, unless you have a great line to block for him.

The Saints made a wise choice in acquiring the services of Drew Brees. Quarterback was a big problem for the Saints last year and Brees has proven his mettle. However, the departure of LeCharles Bentley will not help the Saints improve their offense. The Saints will have to find some blocking in the free agent market or hope to score a quality lineman in the draft. By picking up Brees they acquire some flexibility in trading that draft pick, but losing a solid blocker in Bentley is not going to be good for the team in the immediate future.

The Dolphins needed a good Quarterback. They have solid performers throughout their offense but the liability since Marino retired has been the dead heads they've tried to pawn off as NFL starters. Culpepper is a great acquisition and a steal for a second round pick. I don't know when the world decided Dante Culpepper was washed up, but before last season Culpepper was MVP material. He's big, strong, tough and throws well. He's not without flaws, but even the mighty Peyton Manning has a hole or two in his game. Culpepper's season was cut short by a gruesome knee injury, but the surgery supposedly went well and Dante will be 100% by the time the Dolphins take the field. With New England and Buffalo looking really confused this off season and the Jets being the Jets, Miami could win the AFC East going away. They'll lose in the playoffs, but they'll look like Superbowl contenders all year long.

Worst Individual Move: Chargers

It's got to be the Chargers. In fact, the Charges are a case study in stupid personnel decisions and this years blunder was three years in the making. Drew Brees is a good quarterback and has proven his value in two consecutive seasons. Completing 65% of his passes for almost 7,000 yards and more than 50 touchdowns in 31 games. The kid ripped up his shoulder in the last game of the season...a game he shouldn't have been in, no less...and the Chargers decided to let him walk.

The comedy of errors started when they jumped the gun and drafted Eli Manning, who they knew was not going to sign anyway, and trade him for Phillip Rivers. Brees came on strong, left Rivers on the bench and now everybody wonders if the guy can play. Brees proved he was at least better than Rivers simply by virtue of relegating the former NC State star to the bench for two years.

The Chargers didn't do themselves any favors by breaking the bank on two quarterbacks for two seasons. Everybody knew one of them had to go so the Chargers weren't going to get a lot of trade value, but letting the one who proved his worth on the field walk away with nothing in return was foolish. How do you let a pro-bowl QB slip away and not even get a fourth round pick for him? That's not even stupid, it's insane. The NFL should sue the Chargers management for negligence.

The Cowboys have to get a dishonorable mention for bringing in T.O. Drew Bledsoe simply doesn't have thick enough skin to put up with T.O.'s antics over the cpourse of a season and Parcel's unwavering authority might not impress the egomaniacal Owens. There's no disputing the talent the guy brings, and from that perspective he is an upgrade over Keyshwan Johnson, but it's a sad state of affairs when the guy you're replacing Keyshawn with brings more baggage. Vegas isn't taking bets on the Cowboys getting to the Superbowl, they're setting odds on when T.O. implodes. I'm taking week 9.

Look for some new faces at the top of the divisions this year. The Browns and Dolphins could be the rags to riches stories in the AFC and the Redskins might end up being the class of the NFC. Some teams will need to make a little headway in the draft, but it's been a busy off season and the balance of power will be swinging.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Method to the Madness

The NCAA Tournament selection committee revealed the pairings for the Championship Tournament that begins with the opening rounds today. But just because the games begin, don't count on the whining to subside. Especially when those teams believed to have received special consideration fall. See, Maryland would have won.

No, they would not have. Here's the thing, people: 64 teams get a ticket to the Big Dance. A number of those bid are automatic meaning that the selection committee has no power over the teams who either win their regular season title, or storm through their respective conference tournaments to win a championship. That's how teams with losing records can actually sneak in.

If you fail to qualify for an automatic bid, the selection committee is going to split hairs and scrutinize the rest of the at large hopefuls. In most cases it's a no brainer. The better a team's national ranking, the more likely it is they'll get in, but the selection committee reviews strength of schedule, power rankings and late season performance. It's possible that the occasional top 20 team who didn't lock up the automatic bid could get snubbed. Even in those rare cases it's hard to feel sorry for the teams on the outside looking in.

Fans are expected to make mountains out of molehills. That's what fans do. They see injustice in every thing that doesn't reflect their opinion that the team they root for is the best. But analysts and coaches should know better. When you have something as hideous as the BCS using a twisted combination of computers and people to select the top two teams in the country next door in football, the NCAA Basketball Tournament should seem like a beacon of unbiased hope.

The problem is the fact that too many of these analysts are former college players and/or coaches who hold strong loyalties to the conferences they were associated with. Sports networks want to improve their perceived credibility by hiring people who actually played the game as though these idiots actually have insight that enhances our appreciation of the game.

The reality is that these ex-jocks and coaches often provide insight into the painfully obvious and present uninspiring information as though it's some sort of an inside secret. When you convert points off of turnovers it puts the pressure on your opponent. Really? Wow. I did not know that. Hey, you know what else puts pressure on your opponent? Stupid analysts who won't stop blathering about the painfully obvious. Jeez, next you'll tell me that the team with more points at the end of the game will be the winner. Is the ball round? Does it bounce, too?

Sadly, these washed up jocks steal career opportunities from qualified mass media students who try to combine their love of sports with an education in broadcasting. They study and practice and work long hours at unpaid internships so they can one day graduate from college and become a hot dog vendor at their local arena because some big dumb athlete blew out his knee and had to get a real job. It's not fair but we can tolerate it as long as these idiots at least pretend to be professional. Crying foul over a two or three debatable selections in a 64 team field is not professional.

The Tournament is great. It's so big and comprehensive that you can't diminish it by whimpering over one or two teams. It's like criticizing a sunset because of a few thin clouds. Over the next few weeks the field of 64 will be whittled down to the Final Four and beyond that a true national champion will emerge. There will be upsets. Big upsets. There always are.

Regular season performance doesn't matter. Anybody can win. Goliath can stumble and David can get on a hot streak. There's no margin for error, no getting back on track after a tough loss. If you don't bring the "A" game every day, you will "B" going home. That's why the fans love it. Every game is game seven.

Some coaches try to downplay the tournament because of that upset factor. It's just one game, they say. Sure. If UConn plays Albany 100 times UConn will win 99 of those games, but that one shot is what makes the Tournament so special. You don't have any margin for error. Win or go home. To me, that's a bigger challenge than winning a regular season title. It's a lot easier to win 25-30 games over the course of a season than it is to win six straight games against top ranked opponents in the national spotlight.

Some say that this makes the tournament a novelty act. The regular season is a grueling test of which team is the best. The tournament is a reward in itself. It's an exhibition for the fans, but it's not the fans I see exalting in their glory when the final horn sounds. It's not the fans I see gleefully cutting down the nets. No. The tournament is the season. Coaches, players and the NCAA want the regular season to matter, but for most fans the regular season is just practice for the Big Dance in March.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Steroids, Strife and Schtick


I can't find one good reason to get behind Barry Bonds. It's obvious this joker has been loading steroids the way John Goodman hammers cheeseburgers and the fact that this spoiled baseball brat has been a certified jackass from day one makes it easy to laugh as the stuff hitting the fan splatters all over him. I only wish that Barry was white so he couldn't hide behind being black when the critics come calling. Of course he's already proven that he'll hide behind his kids so I guess it wouldn't matter.

But the issue of steroids is rampant. It goes beyond Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. Sure, the records they set should be wiped clean from the record books but then again everything that happened in baseball since 1988 should be treated like toxic waste. That includes Rickey Henderson's stolen base record and Cal Ripken Jr.'s consecutive game streak.

I'm not throwing those accomplishments under the bus to prove a point, I really believe that everybody in baseball over the past 15 years is guilty until proven innocent. I know that's harsh and defies the logic of our criminal justice system, but I'm not talking about a criminal trial. This is the court of public opinion and it is the players who, through their union, refused to submit to a meaningful drug testing procedure. You reap what you sow.

I know that it's hard to imagine golden boy Cal taking steroids, but didn't everybody dismiss Jose Canseco's claim that he introduced Rafael Palmeiro to steroids? Not Raffi! Then a few months after wagging his finger at Congress and calling Jose Canseco a liar on national television, Palmeiro tested positive for steroids. He still claims he didn't do it, but nobody believes him.

So why not Cal? He sure managed to stay in shape didn't he? Does that mean everybody who stays fit is a cheater? No. But if you're a professional athlete making millions of dollars you need to pee in a cup and prove that you're legit. Last time I checked Cal didn't pee in any cups. At least not for any drug test. And it's pretty obvious that a few of the guys Cal played with took steroids. Remember how Brady Anderson suddenly packed on 20 pounds of solid muscle and blasted 50 home runs out of the lead off spot? No doubt about the pharmaceutical assistance he got there.

But will peeing in the cup cut it? Bonds and Jason Giambi were taking designer steroids that can't be detected through current testing procedures and many other drugs the players have access to won't show up. The test used by Major League Baseball is a sham. Instead of taking a cue from the International Olympic Committee and selecting a test that accounts for modern advancements in hormonal supplementation, MLB went with the minimum acceptable standard. They don't want to solve the problem at all, they want to appear to be concerned.

Baseball isn't alone. The NFL has a testing policy that former players have called a joke. One doesn't need to look very far to find the freakish physical attributes that tell the tale of steroid use. Somehow wide receivers and defensive backs who weighed under 200 pounds in college manage to become quicker and faster after they bulk up to 220 pounds in the NFL. And you have to be suspicious of the speed and quickness the 250 pound linebackers in the league are capable of. Sure, an intense training regimen can do great things, but you have to be naive if you think that steroids are the exception rather than the rule.

The NBA has seen players get bigger and stronger over the years as well. Fans don't clamor for testing in the NBA because fans don't really clamor for the NBA. A limited fan base provides the NBA and it's cellar-dwelling cousin the NHL a lot of latitude in the drug testing department. Fans seem more concerned that NBA players might smoke marijuana and that Hockey players might wear mullets. And in all honesty, mullets are a menace.

If any sports league was really serious about drug testing, they would happily outsource the entire process to a third party agency that has no interest in the outcome of the tests. As it stands right now. None of the sports leagues want to see their best and most popular players endure the long term humiliation of a positive test. The fact is the leagues don't want testing. It's too much of a hassle. They struggle with enough image issues without having marquee players being suspended regularly for violating the substance abuse policy.

And fans don't want it either. We like to make a stink about fair play integrity and, of course, the children, the poor innocent children who look up to these athletes for guidance and inspiration in ever walk of life, but at the end of the day we want eye-popping highlights. Until everybody takes the issue seriously the leagues will only go through the motions. In short talk is cheap.


The NFL has slowly but surely turned itself into one of the most successful live action entertainment ventures in the history of the modern world. Billions and Billions of dollars change hands in the name of the NFL. Rival professional leagues have come and gone, failing to make a dent in the popularity the NFL enjoys.

The only thing that comes close is college football and that's only because the NCAA doesn't have to pay those future NFL stars who are basically indentured to the farm system for three years before they can get paid for their efforts. If the NCAA ever had to pay those kids, or the NFL decided to stop making it so easy for the NCAA to hold them hostage college football would really be about student athletes and the big time be lucky to see 100, 000 fans over the course of a season.

The NFL has a stranglehold on payroll. While their counterparts in other leagues sign massive guaranteed contracts for a hundred million dollars, NFL players don't have the leverage to secure big salaries or long term security. With the league minimum salary well into the six figure range it's hard to feel sympathy for the players as they struggle through unguaranteed contracts and hard salary caps, but you still can't fault the players for taking an opportunity to push the NFL for more money as the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires. The NFL has enjoyed massive revenues and the players are entitled to take what is theirs.

You see, the NFL controls everything related to the game of professional football. In the NBA Lebron James can squeeze Nike for 50 million a year because he's allowed to wear Nike shoes on the court. The NFL controls the apparel agreements so even if a player is popular enough to secure an endorsement deal, he can't get the money an NBA player clears because the NFL will determine which shoes he wears during a game. Even if player does wear a brand not licensed by the NFL, he has to cover the shoe with tape. This is a bone of contention with the players. Not only are they getting short changed on their salaries, they are limited in earning money off the field as well.

But that's only part of the problem with this labor agreement. The players want more money than the owners would like to part with. What else is new? However, the owners are quibbling amongst themselves over the revenue sharing provisions. The NFL controls general revenues and the teams share in that revenue equally. Television contracts, endorsement deals, and licensing agreements are all arranged by the league office and the revenue is divided evenly among the teams. Even the revenue generated by ticket sales is shared among the league to a large degree. And that's fair.

One thing that isn't shared are local revenues. Some teams are very popular in their particular area and they are able to secure local revenue deals with area businesses. The sources of the revenue can be tied to stadium concessions, luxury suite sales, parking and other game related items. Another popular revenue source is naming rights. Then you have various advertisements that can be placed throughout the stadium. Owners of smaller market teams want to share the local revenue while the owners of the larger market teams are logically opposed to it.

Small market owners believe the revenue sharing would help the league by allowing small market teams to be more competitive, large market owners believe that this would reduce incentive to generate local revenues. They don't want to share their money. Who does?

Obviously both sides can make a great case, but the point nobody seems to be making is so simple: If the NFL won't impose a local revenue sharing plan, then the NFL should not be able to prevent teams from moving. While some teams have made controversial moves, the NFL strictly regulates this activity and many proposed moves have been nixed by the league. Reasons have included the size of a particular market, the fan base and the proximity of the desired market to another team. When Art Modell repackaged the Browns as the Ravens and moved to Baltimore the Redskins filed a grievance with the NFL because they felt Baltimore was part of their market. Obviously the NFL disagreed but not until they tendered a cash settlement to the Redskins.

So if the large market owners don't want to share local revenues, that's fine. But then the league can't block moves. So Zygi Wilf can pack up the Vikings and open up shop in Hartford; Bill Bidwill can hop a Greyhound and base the Cardinals in Fort Worth. How would that affect those local revenues? Stop the whining and close the deal.


The World Baseball Classic has to be the biggest sham since they tried to make the All Star game count by putting home field advantage for the World Series at stake. Ho Hum. I'm not even paying attention. Spring training just started which means the players are just now getting into shape. Pitchers aren't ready to throw 200 pitches a game and sluggers haven't shaken off the rust enough to hit a hanging curve ball out of the infield yet. So why should anybody care about the WBC?

I like baseball and I follow it throughout the season, but I don't even get invested into the action until after the All Star break. It's not even interesting until then. They play 162 regular season games but it's only the last 62 of them that really matter and that's a stretch. The casual fan can tune into the action in the last week of the regular season and enjoy baseball as much as the junkie who's been keeping box scores since April 2nd. So tell me again why this WBC matters?
Don't give me national pride. Please. Do you really want to pin your national pride to a bunch of guys trying to shake off 15 pounds of winter flab?

If you want this to matter, extend the All Star break and play it in the middle of the season. Scrap the non-baseball dog and pony show that is the home run derby, do away with the lame excuse for a game that the All Star game has become and play a few double headers over a five day period, give the players a couple of days off on the back end and call it a Classic. Don't hand me some repackaged version of the Grapefruit league and tell me it's exciting. I know better.

Sadly, these three issues have taken center stage in the sports world right before the NCAA announces it's tournament pairings. That's too bad. This is the time of the year we are supposed to suffer from March Madness and we're more worried about this garbage. Here's hoping we come to our senses next week.