Monday, December 31, 2007

History in the making

The NFL might be the most competitive sports league in the world. Very little separates the winners from the losers. The Miami Dolphins finished the season 1-15 while the New England Patriots achieved regular season perfection winning all 16 of their games…Including two victories over the hapless Dolphins. Still these teams were much closer than the 15 game difference in their final records.

Consider that six of the Dolphins’ losses came courtesy of a three point margin. Even games where the Dolphins lost by more points they were pretty competitive. The Dolphins just didn’t get any breaks. They lost key players to injuries, had big plays called back by penalties and saw the ball bounce the other team’s way in more than one contest. Looking back over the Dolphins’ season it’s hard not to believe in luck.

The Patriots didn’t seem lucky. They were just good. They obliterated opponents all season long. Granted there was a stretch where the Patriots seemed to lose motivation and they found themselves in close games down the stretch but when they needed a defensive stop or a long scoring drive they managed to get it. Still, luck was on their side. Imagine how the Patriots might have fared if they’d have lost Tom Brady to a severe concussion or Randy Moss to a torn ACL. Although the Patriots made their own luck on the field, the fact that their key players managed to stay healthy all season was remarkable.

The 1972 Dolphins weren’t that lucky. They lost their starting QB early in the season and had to rely on their backup QB. Of course that back-up happened to be a wily veteran who had intimate knowledge of Don Shula’s game plan but Earl Morrall was still a reserve. How many teams could qualify for the playoffs, let alone win every game with a reserve QB calling the signals?

Of course football was different in 1972. Players didn’t have as much power as they do today and teams were able to load up on talent and Shula’s Dolphins were loaded. They had a fantastic line and a powerful running game. They weren’t known as a passing team back in the 1970s. Bob Griese wasn’t the greatest QB in NFL history. Larry Csonka was the weapon of choice and Miami’s line allowed him to build up a head of steam. In fact, of all the players the Dolphins could lose to injury, the QB was probably the one they needed least. When you think about the way the game was played back then and the way it’s played today the Patriots 16-0 is far more impressive than Miami’s 14-0 run.

Of course the regular season feat doesn’t matter. Miami continued the perfection into the post season winning the divisional playoffs, the conference title and finally sealed the deal with a 14-7 Super Bowl win over the Redskins. New England has to match that feat and in today’s NFL there’s very little separating one playoff team from another. If New England doesn’t beat all three of its post season opponents the 16-0 regular season record will become a running joke. Teams are judged by the championships they win, not overall records. Just ask the Buffalo Bills who dominated the 1990’s by winning 4 straight AFC Championships, but the albatross the members of those teams will forever wear is the 0-4 record they hold in the Super Bowl. Nobody cares that they made the playoffs every year from 1988 through 1993 or that they won 70 regular season games in that span…an average of more than 11 wins per season.

If the Patriots make good on the promise their 16-0 season committed them to, there’s no denying where they stand in NFL lore. The nature of today’s game makes their accomplishment so much more significant than anything anybody’s done before. Football is at its pinnacle. Players in the league are more athletic and work harder at the game than the players in seasons past. There’s very little difference in talent. Now more than ever the “any given Sunday” adage is true. The Patriots ran a gauntlet to get to 16-0 and now they will face three monumental tests. If they succeed there will be no denying how great this team is.

In fact, it’s hard to deny it now. When you think about how fierce the competition is in the NFL, the fact that they actually went 16-0 should be enough to hold them in high esteem. If the Patriots fall in the playoffs or come up short in the Super Bowl, is it fair to relegate them to anonymity? Can we make fun of a team that goes 18-1?

Sadly, the answer is yes. If the Patriots don’t win in the post season people will speculate that they were so focused on that perfect regular season record that they lost site of winning a championship and in the world of professional sports that’s a cardinal sin. Teams don’t start training camp in the middle of summer so they can win 16 games, they do it because they want to win the Super Bowl. That’s the prize. Now the Cleveland Browns can take solace in winning 10 games, and the Packers can bask in the glory of capturing a division title but ultimately every player on every team starts the season with the goal of winning a Super Bowl. Out of all the games a team plays throughout the season the only one that matters is the one that ends the journey. For the Patriots that game hasn’t arrived yet, for the Browns that was last week when they lost to the Bengals, for the Dolphins, Raiders, 49ers, Bears and Ravens, that game came along months ago.

9-7, 11-5, 16-0...Those are just numbers. The only thing that matters is whether or not you get to the playoffs. The Tennessee Titans are as successful as the Patriots at this point. Now it’s a single elimination tournament. The only thing that matters is winning. Everything else is just talk. The team that wins it all will be the team that wants it more. Stats, rest, injuries fatigue, home field advantage…none of that really matters. It’s a new season and the best team will win. Everybody has a chance to make history.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Browns Made Big Strides in 2007.

The Cleveland Browns surprised almost everybody this year. Regardless of whether they win or lose their final game, the outcome of which has no impact on their playoff aspirations, this 2007 campaign has been a success. Granted, this is a team that shot itself in the foot several times over the course of the season and the defense leaves a lot to be desired but back in April, when the Browns traded for Dallas’ pick to land Brady Quinn, a lot of people wrote the Browns off as a bust.

Joe Thomas has proven himself to be as good as advertised. That’s big. Plenty of teams have played it “safe” in the draft by selecting a highly-touted lineman with a top five pick only to find themselves struggling to mitigate that selection years later. Thomas is going to be a stalwart tackle in the NFL. For every Chris Samuels there is a Robert Gallery. Thomas is the real deal. That was a smart move. The Browns also got a lot of mileage out of Eric Wright and Ben McDonald. The rookie corners made big strides throughout the season.

Landing Quinn with the 22nd pick was a coup for the Browns who needed to take out an insurance policy against the Charlie Frye experiment. Frye narrowly won the starting job over a lackluster Derek Anderson in preseason only to find himself run out of town on a rail after regressing in the season opener against Pittsburgh. Anderson stepped in and stepped up, elevating his game to a remarkable level. Now the only question about Quinn is whether he’ll ever get a chance to lead the Browns.

But Anderson is a sketchy proposition. As impressive as his stats appear at first blush, a closer look reveals a very raw QB who could very well end up playing in the AFL if he doesn’t make some improvements. Anderson can be reckless at times, firing the ball into tight coverage. He’s been bailed out by great receivers and aided by a resurgent Jamal Lewis. But what happens when defenses start keying on his weaknesses? Anderson’s four interception performance against the Bengals is an indication that the NFL might be on the verge of figuring him out. We’ve seen it happen a hundred times before. The fact is that there are more Kerry Collins stories than Tom Brady epics. The law of averages tells us that Anderson is on a collision course with mediocrity. Anderson can’t throw short and intermediate passes with any consistency. That’s bad news for an NFL team with any hope of winning a title.

But that doesn’t mean the Browns should cut him loose. Until he hits that wall he’s a great player. The Browns need to hedge their bets and that means keeping Anderson and Quinn on the same team. If somebody outbids the Browns for Anderson’s services so be it. Take the compensatory draft picks and move on but don’t let Anderson slip away for a song. The best move for the Browns is to start the 2008 season with a lively battle of the starting spot and hold onto a promising backup for another year. If Anderson proves to be a flash in the pan, you got exactly what you wanted: a solid year of preparation for the future of the team. If Anderson improves and becomes the franchise the Browns have been looking for Quinn will still command some value on the trade market. GM Phil Savage has already indicated that they will offer Anderson the maximum tender which means that the Browns will receive first and third round picks if another team scoops him up. It’s doubtful that a team would want to beat the Browns offer and give up two picks in the draft but stranger things have happened. Look at what the Dolphins did.

The Browns look good on offense. Edwards and Winslow matured a lot heading into this season and should get better next year. They’ll anchor one of the best receiving corps in the NFL for a few more years. Retaining Jamal Lewis is a good idea, especially if they can keep him as hungry as he was in 2007. LeCharles Bentley is rehabbing his knee and should be ready to bolster a much improved line. Finding an explosive compliment to Lewis is a nice idea but it won’t be feasible without a first round pick. The real focus needs to be the defense. Romeo Crennel earned his chance to coach the Browns because of his pedigree as a championship-caliber defensive coordinator. Since he took the helm, the Browns have been struggling to implement the 3-4 defensive scheme employed by the Patriots. The Browns are awful against the run and generate no pressure on the QB during the two minute drill. Teams seem capable of moving the ball at will.

While there’s no question that the Browns could use some help on the defensive line, blaming the deficiencies on talent alone is unfair. There are some solid athletes on that defense but they aren’t being deployed effectively. The Browns are running a 3-4 defense with 4-3 personnel. Something has to change. If the Browns aren’t willing to overhaul the defensive personnel in the off season then a change will have to be made with the coaching staff. Crennel might have to relinquish control of his defense to 4-3 guru.

For the Browns it’s great to be in this position. For the first time in ages it looks as though the Browns can stop rebuilding the franchise and start tweaking the team for a championship run. It’s still a long road ahead but long roads are much easier to deal with when the engine is finally running.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Damage Control

It looks like HGH is the easy way out for the players who have been exposed by the Mitchell Report. Andy Pettit copped to using HGH a couple of times to speed the recovery process after sustaining an injury. Now Fernando Vina is making the same excuse. How many more will follow? Of course, let's give credit where credit is due, Paul Byrd spun this web of lies during the ALCS when his name was connected to a massive shipment of HGH.


The truth of the matter is that the guys on this list represent a small percentage of cheaters. Just because Jose Canseco is the only guy willing to admit that he regularly used steroids to enhance his performance doesn't mean the other players are just dabblers.

Even if Andy Pettit is being honest and he really limited his excursion into the realm of performance enhancement to a recovery process skepticism is the price he has to pay. It's not like Pettit came forward before the report was released. He was just the first guy to use an admission as damage control. That doesn't make him a good guy, just a smart one. He's still a liar and a cheater. If he was honest he would have assisted in the investigation.

Look, playing baseball is a privilege. Players are expected to do things a certain way. There's no question that the temptation to take steroids is tremendous and in some cases the use of performance enhancing substances might even be required but there are consequences for every action.

And let's get real...

It would be fitting if every player from the mid 1980's through the 2007 season was denied induction into the Hall of Fame. Even though a lot of players didn't cheat, most knew about it and didn't say anything. Everybody involved in baseball over the last 25 years has a hand in this mess. Tony Gwinn and Cal Ripkin Jr. are just as guilty of dishonoring the game as the guys on the Mitchell Report. Aiding and abetting.

By the way, Pete Rose fans...Pete's still a scumbag of the highest order. Right or wrong, prior to 2002 gambling was the worst crime a baseball player could think of committing. One of the greatest players of all time, Shoeless Joe Jackson, is still banned from baseball even though most baseball historians feel he was an innocent victim in a massive scandal. Pete Rose was no innocent victim. He was a egomaniac who willfully and wantonly broke baseball's cardinal rule. Then, after he signed his own ban, he embarked on a campaign to ruin baseball for everybody else. Steroids might be the worst form of cheating but nothing is more disgraceful than Pete Rose.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Roid Rage

Well the laundry list is out and there are a lot of players who’ve been linked to steroids. Big, bad Roger Clemens is among the would be Hall-of-Famers who will spend the next few years being hounded by their connection to performance enhancing substances. Sadly, the list is far from comprehensive. The Mitchell Report might have been exhaustive but that doesn’t mean they got everybody. The goal of this inquest was to identify the scope of the problem, not to resolve it. I wouldn’t be surprised if this list represents only 10% of the players who are guilty of doping.

Naturally, just about everybody on this list denies any wrong doing but let’s just see how many of them hire lawyers to sue for slander. Mark McGwire and Raphael Palmiero both too k vicious shots at Jose Canseco but stopped short of holding Canseco legally accountable for defamation of character. That’s because Jose told the truth. In retrospect, Canseco should have sued them for questioning his integrity.

It’s not practical to retroactively punish players. Major League Baseball needs to move forward and address the issue of current cheaters. Let the court of public opinion handle the players on the list. Shame can be a powerful thing. The issue at hand is current and future use. There are laboratories feverishly working on better performance enhancing substances. There are loopholes to exploit. That’s why Mark McGwire dodged a bullet when he was caught with Andro. Andro wasn’t a steroid but rather a precursor that became a steroid in the body. Technically speaking, Andro wasn’t even illegal at the time and it wasn’t banned in baseball. But the truth is that McGwire used Andro to supplement his regular steroid regimen.

Labs are doing more than exploiting loopholes, they’re also creating illegal drugs that can’t be readily detected. Scientists carefully study the methods used in current testing and engineer drugs to avoid the indicators. Steroids are traditionally fat soluble which means they tend to linger in the system for weeks but Barry Bonds was implicated in an operation that alleges the use of water soluble steroids that don’t stay in the system for more than a day or two. The now infamous “Cream” and accompanying “Clear” are examples of steroids that were engineered to beat conventional tests.

Nobody utilizes more rigorous testing than the International Olympic Committee but even the IOC was duped by Balco. Marion Jones managed to foil the numerous tests Olympic competitors undergo and the result was Olympic domination. Her name surfaced in the BALCO nightmare and she subsequently admitted to using steroids. The result: she was stripped of her medals. Also, although it was unlikely she was planning a comeback, Jones is banned from international competition for a minimum of 2 years. Even though the tests can be beaten, the consequences of a positive test make the risk exceed the reward.

Imagine if those penalties were imposed in professional sports. Currently players face a suspension that amounts to a fraction of the regular season. In fact, in the NFL steroids are treated in the same manner as marijuana. Why? Marijuana is not a performance enhancing substance and it doesn’t impugn the integrity of the game. It’s about image. People seem more disgusted with Ricky Williams than they do Shawn Merriman but it was Merriman who cheated. Merriman’s decision to break the law made him bigger, stronger and faster. Ricky’s made him hungry. Merriman even made the Pro Bowl on the heels of his positive test. And now it’s all better. He’s still a gridiron hero but Ricky Williams is a punk. Frankly, Ricky Williams is more worthy of our respect and trust.

Professional athletes have the wherewithal to purchase steroids on their own. Pay is based on performance so players see steroids as an investment. If they can mitigate the risk, there is a tangible reward. Forget about health concerns, these guys risk permanent injury on every play. Long term liver failure is the least of their worries. The risk is getting caught. The risk is losing money. Furthermore, since teams aren’t held directly accountable for doping there’s a culture of looking the other way throughout sports. It’s not just at the professional level either. College coaches and athletic directors can see the impact of steroids better than anybody but when’s the last time you heard of a college coach blowing the whistle on a player who miraculously packed on 40 pounds of solid muscle over an offseason? And because college athletes have a desire to compete at the professional level, the use is prevalent.

For decades former athletes at the professional and collegiate levels have characterized drug testing as laughable. Players know when they might be tested and there are hundreds of ways to beat the test. Combine that with the masking agents and more difficult to detect drugs and you have a system designed to create the illusion of propriety. Ultimately the primary concern is revenue. If doping generates more money, nobody really cares.

Part of the problem is that fans don’t really care. Most see steroids as a minor problem. They don’t give steroids credit for the impact they have. Many people are ignorant to the science of steroids and assume that steroids result in big, bulky, slow behemoths. But then you have Marion Jones. The reality is that steroids falsely increase hormone levels that enhance athletic performance. The athlete can use a training program to dictate the impact steroids have. Marion Jones used steroids to improve her speed. Roger Clemens used steroids to speed his recovery time and, like Barry Bonds, used steroids and HGH to shave years off his performance. How do you quantify the impact? You don’t have to. Once a player tests positive it’s safe to assume they’ve been juicing all along and that everything they’ve accomplished is tainted. Because the testing procedures are such a joke you can go ahead and assume that they’ll hop right back on that steroid cycle after they jump through a few hoops to appease the masses. Once a doper, always a doper. That might sound unfair, but so are steroids.

It wouldn’t be that big a deal if it weren’t for the kids. What an adult chooses to do to his body is his business but what about those kids who are pursuing the dream of playing big time college ball or even making it as a pro? If the road to the NFL or Major League Baseball is paved with the Cream, then collegiate players will be juicing to catch up and if collegiate players are fortifying their performance with dangerous substances it’s ridiculous to assume that high school athletes aren’t following suit. From there it only gets worse.

That’s why it’s time to stop fooling around and impose some serious penalties. Improve the testing procedures and put the screws to those who come up positive. Instead of suspending a player for a month, kick them out for two years and impose sanctions on the team. You can bet your bottom dollar that the San Diego Chargers would have dealt with Shawn Merriman internally if a positive test would have cost them the playoffs. The Yankees would have never signed Roger Clemens is his positive test would have resulted in a forfeit of the entire season. That’s if the player would even be willing to risk getting caught if the penalty was as severe as a two year layoff. As it stands right now teams can benefit from the actions of cheaters and the only risk they face is losing that player. Raise the stakes. Once you take steroids out of professional sports, amateur sports will follow.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Squib Kicks


Ohio State stumbled into the top ranking in the final BCS poll. Thanks to a soft schedule and a battered Big 10, the Buckeyes managed to go 11-1. Buckeye fans don’t like hearing it but the fact that the Buckeyes are in the BCS Championship makes a mockery of the term National Champion. Not the LSU is exactly worthy of the hype. The Tigers lost twice. Granted both losses came in overtime but that says a lot more about LSU’s coaching staff than it does about the Tigers’ opposition. The SEC is a strong conference but it’s not that much better than the Big 10 or the Pac 10. About the only thing that sets the SEC apart is its championship game which forces two very good teams to beat on each other at the end of the season. The SEC title game is why Florida was able to exploit a lethargic Ohio State team last year.

Don’t count on Ohio State to make the same mistakes. Even though the Buckeyes lost to the only formidable opponent on their schedule (at home against Illinois), Ohio State isn’t short on talent. They never are. There are a number of players on the Buckeye roster who are more than capable of playing on Sundays next year. Ohio State’s schedule might have been soft but they did win their games in convincing fashion. These guys can play.

And the Big 10 needs them to. In spite of proving itself as a conference in head to head competition against the SEC in bowl games last year, fans and commentators ignored the success of Wisconsin and Penn State and cast doubt on the Big 10 in light of Ohio State’s sleepwalk in the so-called championship game. It’s not fair but Ohio State and the Big 10 have become a punch line. If Ohio State loses another bowl game to an SEC school the Buckeyes and the rest of the Big 10 will be punished in future polls.

Make no mistake, perception is reality. If public opinion of the Big 10 is low that will be reflected in the preseason rankings. Even if Big 10 schools perform well during the course of the season, voters won’t be as willing to reward those teams with lofty poll position. That means the Big 10 could find itself on the outside looking in. Over the past few years the Big 10 had enough clout to break a tie in favor of its teams. A 10-2 Wisconsin team used to have enough clout to get ranked ahead of an 11-1 Big East program. If Ohio State loses they will confirm suspicions that the Big 10 is fat, slow and noncompetitive thus guaranteeing a long hard road to those at large BCS bids.

Can I get that in writing?

Speaking of guarantees, was that angle played a little too aggressively by the media in the prelude to the Steelers/Patriots game? It’s not like anybody went out of their way to disrespect the Patriots. If you ask any player in any sport if they think they can win their next game they are probably going to say yes. That’s why we play the games.

It’s unlikely anything any Steeler said had any impact on the Patriots performance. The Patriots were coming off two sketchy performances and had a point to prove. The message was delivered. The Steelers were supposed to be a contender. Losing by 20 points this late in the season doesn’t bode well for Mike Tomlin and the boys.


On the heels of spanking the Steelers New England looks primed to complete a perfect season. A win next week over the lowly Jets matches Miami’s miraculous 14-0 performance and then the only question is whether the Pats will play to win against the Giants. Thanks to Don Shula’s recent tantrum over “Spy-gate” B-squared will probably lay the wood to New York just to spite everybody. Then the only issue is capping the perfect season off with a perfect post season. Somehow going 16-0 doesn’t seem special if it’s followed by a 1-1 playoff performance.

For the record, Don Shula should just shut up. First of all, he knows damned well that every coach in the league cheats. His Dolphins, like so many of the great teams of the 1970’s were the product of steroids. Shula probably stole signals from opposing teams as well. Everybody knows that the only difference between Belichick and every other coach in the league is that he got caught. Get over it.

Frankly, Don Shula is the most overrated coach in NFL history. He gets too much credit for that 17-0 team but his biggest mark on NFL history came a few years earlier when his Baltimore Colts failed to beat Joe Namath and the upstart Jets. Combine that with squandering Dan Marino and you have a guy who was lucky rather than good. As much as I dislike Belichick, I hope that Don Shula lives to see the only feather in his cap get blown into the gutter. Go Pats!