Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Don't Believe the Hype

Once upon a time in a little town called Jeannette, there lived a boy named Terrelle Pryor. Now Terrellle was young but he wasn’t little. He was as tall as the day is long and stronger than a team of oxen. Terrelle could outrun a bolt of lightening, catch the thunder on the tip of his pinky finger and throw the entire storm to the other side of the world.

News of Terrelle’s athletic feats traveled far and wide. As he came of age kings from distant lands begged Terrelle to come lead their armies. They made him promises, gave him gifts and offered him his choice of the most beautiful women in the kingdom

Which is why he won't choose Michigan.

Unless he likes sheep, they love their sheep in Michigan. Ba-a-a-a.

Being in Columbus I get treated to a front row viewing of one of the most ridiculous events in sports: college football recruiting. Sometimes fans get credit for being smart, too often sports columnists do and most people assume that coaches have a head for the game but when you witness a recruiting frenzy first hand you realize that everybody is an idiot.

I don’t know Terrelle Pryor. I’ve never seen him play. He could be a great guy and a phenomenal athlete. He could be a total jerk and a complete bust. Knowing what I do about reality I figure he’s somewhere in between on both counts. Knowing what I do about football I seriously doubt he’s going to make or break any of the college programs that are courting him.

A few years ago the Ohio State Buckeyes landed one of the hottest quarterbacks in the country. Everybody loved Justin Zwick. He was tall, athletic, smart and had a cannon for an arm. He looked like a young Bret Favre. Of course he was picking apart high school defenses and he played on a pretty good team that had a dominant line and receivers who could actually catch the passes he was throwing. Justin enrolled at Ohio State and learned Jim Tressel’s program. After a couple of years Ohio State was led to a perfect season by a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback. It wasn’t Zwick.

Troy Smith might not have received a scholarship from Ohio State if Tressel didn’t think that signing the athletic young man would all but guarantee the Buckeyes could lock up Ted Ginn Jr. the following season. Such are the politics of the recruiting trail. Smith was told he could try his luck at QB but that he might better serve the team as a defensive back. Or waterboy. Smith put in his time and emerged as the best quarterback in Ohio State history. You could argue that point but you’d be arguing against his Heisman. No other Buckeye signal caller can lay that trump card down. Sorry, Art.

It’s not Terrelle’s fault that he’s the object of so much hype. He’s a great athlete and football fans are so bored with every other aspect of their lives that they have to obsess about a high school senior who is trying to finish his basketball season. He’s got a full plate and a lot to ponder but fans seem to think that this is an egotistical game. Even if it is, he’s in high school. He should be enamored with the publicity. He might as well ride that wave now because they won't be singing his praises when he gets redshirted.

Buckeye fans are wringing their hands over the possibility of Pryor spurning Ohio State in favor of Michigan, Penn State or Oregon. If he chooses Michigan most fans are ready to write off the next four years. How can the Buckeyes beat Pryor?

It’s almost as though the Buckeyes don’t have anybody at the QB position right now. Sure, that Antonio Henton character had everybody excited when he was recruited but now Pryor is the toast of the town. And there is this Boeckman guy who started every game last year but at 23 he’s too old to do improve this year. Pryor is the key. Without him all is lost.

In basketball it makes sense to get excited about one player. LeBron James single-handedly makes the Cavaliers a contender. Take him away and the Cavs become a 25 win team. In football a player is just 1/11th of whatever side of the ball he's on. And that's simplifying it a bit because when it comes to football the whole is GREATER than the sum of the parts. That's why the Giants upset the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Pryor draws comparisons to Vince Young because of his athleticism and size but Vince Young was successful because Texas had a great line, a solid defense and talented backs and receivers. Young added a dimension that made it hard to stop Texas but if the only weapon teams had to stop was Vince Young the Longhorns would have lost every game.

That’s why we have busts. So many great college players trade Heisman Trophies for clipboards when they get to the NFL. The reason they looked so good in college is because thy played for a great team. We thought Reggie Bush was going to make us forget all about Barry Sanders but Reggie’s NFL team isn’t head and shoulders above the rest of the competition. It turns out that all of the flash we saw in Reggie at USC was the product of a loaded program. Reggie’s a great athlete but he’s not exactly a threat to get into Canton without paying full admission.

We give Mike Shanahan credit for being so crafty when it comes to finding successful running backs but the talent d0oesn't lie with Shanahan or the backs, it's always been the offensive line. Look at the difference between Steve Young in a 49ers shirt and the guy who played for Tampa. Great players are often the product of great teams. There are a few rare exceptions, like Barry Sanders, but generally the all time great players played for all time great teams. In the NFL, lousy teams are rewarded for their failure by getting the best picks in the draft. So every year we see the top collegiate performers get plucked from great teams and plugged into miserable circumstances. Then we blame the players for failing to meet expectations.

We don’t notice it so often during the transition from high school to college but that’s only because we don’t spend our Saturdays watching 10 high school games on 8 different ESPNs. We don’t look up high school stats and standings online every Monday when we should be working. If we did we’d notice a staggering number of great high school players dropping off the radar at the collegiate level. People who follow recruiting will sometimes ask what happened to a certain recruit but they always chalk his failure up to effort or attitude. We never consider the fact that the player was evaluated on the merits of his high school team rather than his own ability. And that's why some of the better players in the NFL have been coming from some of the weaker teams in college football. Those mid majors have to evaluate talent differently so they find more dynamic players.

I hope Terrelle Pryor has a fantastic career. I hope he exceeds all expectations but when it comes to football I know better. Even if he is all that he has been made out to be he will only be as good as the rest of the players around him. That’s why football’s so much better than other sports. It’s too bad fans can’t keep that in mind.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Rocket's Red Glare

"Well yeah, my balls got smaller but I can still throw 96..."

I’m tired of hearing about HGH and steroids. I’m angry that Congress is involved. It’s a waste of time, resources and money. Athletes will do anything to gain an advantage over the competition. They’ll cinch their urethras closed to boost ureic acid in their bloodstream, they’ll risk serious medical complications by pumping a little extra blood into their bodies to increase platelet counts. Of course they’ll risk everything to take steroids and hormones. And then they’ll lie about it. Even when they tell the truth they qualify it with a lie. Now the most popular lie is that they broke the law and cheated only for a little while to recover from injury.

And Bill Clinton didn’t inhale.

Roger Clemens is an ass. That’s being polite. Most major league pitchers are jerks. Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson...these are guys who built their careers around breaking the rules to gain an edge. Look, it might be part of the game but it’s still against the rules to throw a fastball at somebody’s head and every one of these guys is known for using the dreaded high and tight fastball to keep hitters off balance. Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan were ruthless when it came to drilling hitters and Randy Johnson milked his reputation as a wild hurler long after he got control of his 100 mph heater. When you consider the velocity of these pitches it’s not a stretch to call it lethal force. A 95 mph fastball can kill, but this form of cheating is largely accepted and pitchers seldom try to connect with the noggin. It happens but not too often.

Steroids and HGH aren’t on par with high cheese but a pitcher who would put another man’s life in danger just to gain an edge on the next pitch probably won’t hesitate to inject a little extra mojo into their bodies to gain an edge on every pitch. Especially when the pitcher in question is an egomaniacal drama queen like Rocket. After what he did last year, holding out for the best contract in baseball only to throw like a girl all season long, Rocket has got to be loving the attention the steroid scandal has given him. Most people wouldn’t want their integrity questioned but Roger has taken the spotlight and run with it.

Like the arrogant whiner who threw a chunk of shattered bat at Mike Piazza a few years ago, Clemens is throwing an epic media tantrum. He’s making threats, calling people names and kissing every butt that might have a chance to help him save his reputation. The problem is that nobody believes him. He’s a liar and a cheater. A selfish bully who wants to have his way. Unlike fellow cheater Mark McGwire, Clemens refuses to accept his legacy and wait for people to forgive and forget.

The thing is all of it is for nothing. The hype over steroids and cheating is just a show. Years ago people made a stink about steroids in the NFL, so the NFL fell on its sword and adopted a testing policy many former players have characterized as a sham. The public takes the NFL’s side because every year or two a couple of players serve a paltry four game suspension but the fans are willing to believe that bloated freaks like San Diego’s Shaun Merriman and journeyman drug addict David Boston come by their athletic prowess naturally. Fans actually believe that a player can stop taking steroids and maintain the same level of performance. Or they want to believe it.

Even if professional sports leagues in this country drafted aggressive testing procedures like those used in the Olympics and the Tour de France, players would still take their chances. Marion Jones did it, and actually beat the system. She was able to reduce her risk of getting caught and felt that the ends justified the means. Unfortunately she left a paper trail.

So there are no fool proof methods. However, the IOC and the Tour de France offset the technological gap by imposing steep penalties. Floyd Landis and a host of other bikers thought they could beat the system used by the Tour de France but when they got caught they paid a steep price. When you get caught cheating on the international stage your suspension is measured in years, not days. They don’t care about excuses or reasons. If you test positive you get stripped of all titles and sit in limbo for a significant portion of your career.

More over, merely being associated with cheating can cost you dearly. International athletes who find themselves linked to labs or doctors who aid and abet cheaters are typically suspended until they can prove themselves innocent. It’s accepted that athletics are not the real world and the notion of due process is checked at the door. So international athletes have to be cautious. Domestic professionals do not. NHL player Bryan Berard was suspended from international competition for two years for testing positive for a steroid leading up to the 2006 Olympics but the NHL couldn’t suspend him because the Olympic test exceeded the scope of their program. I wonder how many MLB or NFL players could pass the Olympic smell test.

Steroids are illegal but law enforcement officials don’t care about steroids. Criminal penalties for steroid use are virtually non-existent. Steroid distributors are a different story but mostly because they don’t pay taxes. Nobody arrested Shaun Merriman when he tested positive a couple of years ago. In fact, he even made the Pro Bowl. The NFL virtually encourages steroid use. And why not? The money keeps rolling in. If fans weren’t ready to boycott the NFL over Michael Vick, Roger Goodell would have worked with prosecutors to enroll Vick in a work release program.

Major League Baseball should go back to 1990, which is the year most people agree that steroids became a commodity in baseball, and just compartmentalize the whole era. Players saw Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco parlay steroids into MVP caliber seasons and got in on the act. Ironically that was the same year steroids were criminalized by the US Government. Sure, not everybody was taking them but players knew about it and they did nothing. Just take every player who played the majority of his career between 1990 and today and disqualify them from the Hall of Fame.

Going forward professional sports leagues in the US should impose a minimum suspension of one year and not let the player return until the beginning of the season following the suspension. Then impose a stiff fine and a reinstatement fee. And forget about appeals and excuses. If you test positive or your name comes up in a provider’s black book you get suspended and if you text positive for any performance enhancing substance a second time you can kiss your career goodbye. Players might be able to afford those designer steroids that don’t show up on every test but would they want to take chances if the price was that high?

Some would. That’s why Marion Jones is going to prison…and she didn’t even test positive. She was linked to a steroid scandal through a law enforcement investigation. And technically she isn’t going to prison for taking steroids, she was stupid enough to lie about it under oath.

Roger Clemens should take notes on that. Right now he’s in the middle of an inquest and he’s denying any wrongdoing. By the time it’s all said and done, Rocket could be watching his own Hall of Fame induction from a television in his minimum security prison cell. We all know he cheated, but now he’s making matters worse by committing a felony.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


Man. Super Bowl week came and went and I missed out on publishing snarky commentary denouncing all of the hype. I also missed an opportunity to impress everybody with my prediction. In all honesty I really believed that the Patriots were going to win by 20. I figured the Patriots would take away the run and force Eli Manning to make mistakes. As it turned out the Patriots did take away the run but Eli Manning stepped up in a big way. His lone interception was a tipped ball that should have been caught and any throw he missed was more than made up for when he willed himself out of coverage to connect on a clutch conversion. Even though he didn’t put up eye popping stats, Eli was the MVP. He might have been more deserving of that distinction than his brother was last year.

The interesting thing about that game is the way the Patriots played. They gave up three points on long time consuming Giants’ drive to start things off but they responded with a touchdown and held onto the lead for most of the game. Still, you could sense that the Giants were comfortable with a defensive struggle whereas the Patriots were nervous. That feeling manifested when Belichick opted to go for it on fourth and 13 even though he was within field goal range. After that play blew up I was pretty sure that the Patriots were doomed.

Tom Brady looked average. With no running game to soften the Giants front and his line struggling to give him the eons of time he had grown accustomed to, Brady looked a lot more like Jim Kelly than Joe Montana. It pretty much closed the book on the argument over who the better QB is. The Colts are successful because Peyton Manning is spectacular. Tom Brady is spectacular because the Patriots are successful. There’s a big difference and we saw it in the Super Bowl. Eli Manning showed us what maintaining one’s composure can do. It looks like Eli might be related to Peyton after all and Tom Brady, well after that performance I think we see a lot more of Jan than we do Marcia.

The difference in the Super Bowl was quarterback play. Everything else was just about even. Manning had Patriot defenders in his face all game long. The Giants couldn’t establish the run. The reason the Giants won is because Eli Manning stayed focused on the task at hand and came up with the plays when they mattered most. He threw two beautiful passes for touchdowns, one was a dagger that demonstrated his arm strength and the other was a nifty game winning fade that showed us Eli can read a defense as well as anybody. And while nobody will forget the amazing hand to helmet grab Tyree came down with, it was Eli’s amazing tackle-breaking scramble that made it possible.

The Patriots looked old and tired. They looked like a team that passed its prime somewhere in the first quarter. Belichick started that game a genius and ended it as the dour little troll who dismantled the Cleveland Browns back in the early 1990s. He couldn’t even stomach going back on the field to play out the last second of official time.

Of course, who cares? The clock ran down after Brady desperately heaved another pass out of reach on fourth and the end of a dynasty. Everybody was on the field because they thought the game was over. Why somebody opted to get persnickety over the final second is anybody’s guess but it wasn’t Belichick’s fault. Nobody likes to lose and expecting somebody to run all the way back to his sideline to relive a tough loss is just ridiculous.

There are plenty of downsides to this Super Bowl. First of all New Yorkers have something to be happy about which will keep them cheerful for about 15 minutes. Then they’ll go back to their routine of arrogance and self-pity. By the time spring rolls around the Super Bowl will be ancient history and the Yankees will be the center of attention. By August people will hate Eli Manning and a sense of entitlement will start to build in the heart of every spoiled fan. It’s too bad the football Giants didn’t pack up and leave with their baseball counterpart decades ago. They’d be easier to root for.

Then we have the handful of loudmouths from that 1972 Dolphins team. In case you were wondering what the sound was, they spent Monday and Tuesday patting themselves on the back. It’s OK to let them have their last little vestige of glory because they gave up any semblance of class and dignity 25 years ago. The best response to their demands for attention is the honest one: They played football back in 1972?

The upside to this Super Bowl is that we don’t have to listen to the Patriots extol their own virtues for the next 30 years. Of course some of the guys on HGH (Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison for example) probably won’t make it another 5 years but Matt Light sure seemed to enjoy the camera in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. Surely a win would have made him a major celebrity. Given the manner in which he got worked by the Giants he might want to consider a career as a door mat.

Another interesting dynamic to this outcome is how far the Patriots have fallen in public esteem. A few weeks ago every sports pundit was making a case for the Patriots as the greatest team of all time and the question was when the winning streak would end. With one loss in a tightly contested game these Patriots, who set records that might not be broken fell not into obscurity but infamy. Nobody remembers Super Bowl losers unless they do it in grand fashion. The Buffalo Bills lost four straight; Dan Marino lost in his only appearance; Fran Tarkenton and his Vikings were consistently turned away in the final game. Nothing comes close to this. This loss, coming off of one of the most remarkable regular season performances in history eclipses everything the Patriots have done. It’s a loss that will loom larger over the franchise than the three Super Bowl wins they acquired since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady became household names.

It almost seems unfair. Can we really take everything away from this team because they came up short in the championship game? This is a team that defeated the best the AFC had to offer and lost by three points to a team that they beat in the final game of the season. Should they be punished so severely for falling 3 points short of history?

You bet. That’s the way it’s done. There’s no best of seven series in football. One shot, winner takes all. That’s why almost a billion people watch the NFL’s championship game and nobody watches the World Series until game seven. The Patriots knew that going in. The schedule didn’t change. Right after they beat the Chargers they knew when, where and who they were going to play. They had two weeks to get ready.

The thing of it is, the Patriots didn’t look flat, or tired, or like they didn’t take the Giants seriously. They simply looked like the lesser of two teams. The game was close but the Giants seemed to have a better handle on things. The Giants got better as the game went on.

Sometimes you’ll witness a big upset and walk away believing that if you played that game over 100 times the favored team would win 99 of them. Appalachian State’s upset of Michigan last year had that sort of feel to it. Other times you’ll see a close game and figure it would be a coin too every time. But the Giants finished the Super Bowl looking like a much better team than they were when they started it. If the Patriots and Giants were to square off in a rematch there’s little doubt that the Giants would win.

What’s more is the fact that the Giants were banged up. They were without their All Pro tight end, their top receiver was playing a bad ankle and the New York secondary was held together with a little spit and tape. The Patriots, on the other hand, were healthy. So that makes the Giants upset even more convincing.

Of course, it’s a little premature to throw dirt on the Patriots grave just yet. They looked bad in the Super Bowl but they don’t need to tear the roster apart and start from scratch. It might be time to let Rodney Harrison go and sign some younger linebackers but overall the Patriots are a solid team and will remain competitive. Belichick might have been outcoached for the first time in nearly 10 years but he’s still a smart guy who can set up a game plan. The dynasty might have ended but there’s still some life left in New England. Whether or not it’s enough life to get back to the Super Bowl and win is another story.