Ban the Tackle

Even though it has been in practice at Dartmouth since 2010, the Ivy League is banning tackling at practice for the upcoming season and going forward. This has mixed reviews from those in and around the game, and I feel the same way. Tackling is a part of the game whether we like it or not. Playing defense is a part of the game whether we like it or not. Concussions are a part of the game whether we like it or not and the list can go on and on. It is becoming more and more apparent that controlling injuries in the game is the trend in the NFL and now finding itself sneaking down to the other levels of the game. I am happy to see the transition, but what does it all mean?

Dartmouth started going with no tackling at practice in 2010 to reduce injuries. This doesn’t mean that contact has been completely banned at practice, but full on tackling has been eliminated to avoid the worst part of injuries the players can face. What they do at the college now is a system where dummies are used to simulate players and work as an easy target for players to practice tackling on a full scale without hitting a teammate. The whole plan at Dartmouth is to be a good tackling team with out actually tackling a teammate. This trend has caught on in the Ivy League, but it has raised questions for those involved in the game to be concerned about.

Good tackling and the idea of proper tackling has changed in the last ten years due to the NFL concussion protocol and effort to make the game safer. The game is safer than ever now, at least that is what we are told to think. Football is dangerous and always will be because the risk of the big hit will be there. Not having players in practice set up to take big hits is a good thing and will do its best to avoid unnecessary injuries. The problem going forward is how well the dummies and simulations can actually work to teach proper tackling. Brian Dawkins, a high school coach and former NFL all-pro safety, said the idea is great but it has its flaws. He is all for trying to reduce injuries and making the game safer. His problem with the dummies and the system at Dartmouth is that they do not fully simulate the intricacies and push back of a human being. Human beings have better stopping speed and lateral movement than these dummies, as well as aren’t going to go right to the ground when hit with the slightest impact. Dawkins said that he still would like to do contact days and teach real tackling to his players, just not on a full-blown scale. What he meant by full-blown was that he wouldn’t teach tackling and real hitting as much as it was in the past, but still use it to teach proper forms of tackling by giving real people pads and showing them how to tackle a human being, not a dummy. It would fully simulate game situations and allow Dawkins’ players to learn how to tackle the right way, while still protecting injuries and being a good coach to his players.

Some players heard about this and said it was crazy to think about doing, but then they took it back a step. They realized the game was changing and the old-school methods aren’t exactly the norm anymore. This method may work for the Ivy League, but will it grow to a bigger scale. The coaches in the power conferences in college football definitely won’t take to this lightly because I know they will view it as a sign of weakness. The NFL won’t do it because the business side of it will always reign supreme, tackling is part of the business and we need to be the best at it. I don’t think this will catch on quickly, but the idea of it makes sense to those in the game and those who know where the game is going. It shows the evolution of the game and that the dangers are real. Teams are taking accountability to protect their players and that is the key. It seemed crazy at first, but coaches are doing their best to change things, and it will work going forward.

Mejia Gets the Boot

It seems like eons ago that baseball implemented its new steroid policy following the dark days of steroids impacting the sport more than ever. “Chicks dig the long ball” was the mantra and players would do anything they could to achieve home run power. Steroids played a crucial role and baseball started to recognize that it and it alone, compared to the other major professional American sports, had a problem the others didn’t. The MLB set up a system that allowed guys three strikes. The first resulted in 50 games suspended, the second 100, and the third meant the player was out, banned from the game entirely. It has taken quite some time, but baseball finally had its first strikeout in the new era and that came at the hands of Jennry Mejia.

Mejia didn’t have a long career, playing for the Mets from only 2010, 2012-15. He was used sporadically as a starter, bullpen member, and closer before having injuries wreck his career in the second half of his already short one. Mejia was caught early on for a banned substance relating to injury and then again just a short time later. The Mets signed him to a one year deal in January to avoid arbitration and hope their young pitcher could regain any kind of form that would keep him on the field. Last week, Mejia tested positive for his third banned substance and that means he is gone. He gets to appeal the commissioner’s decision, but I doubt the commissioner will find any way to give Mejia the ok to keep playing, pending of course the test was wrong or something like that.

Steroids are an interesting part of baseball today as it is clear guys have really taken themselves away from their allure, but are also still trying to cut corners. What I have liked about this policy is that it has taken ten years to nail someone with that lifetime ban, that is incredible. It shows that these guys are taking this seriously and why shouldn’t they. If they get caught once, they lose a third of the current season and that takes time to come back from. Guys can’t just miss almost two months of the season and come back where they left off. The suspensions are big and are damaging enough to careers. Guys like Manny Ramirez, Roger Clemmens, Rafael Palmeiro, and even Alex Rodriguez will find it nearly impossible to reach the Hall of Fame because of their links to the drugs. Palmeiro and Clemmens continue to lose votes by the year and Barry Bonds has seen his numbers stay stagnant even though it was never actually proven he ever used steroids. These things are bad and guys are learning that they can’t get away with it without their reputation and career being essentially tarnished.

Two recent examples of careers being tarnished are Ryan Braun and Melky Cabrera. Following the Brewers’ best season since they went to the World Series in 1982, Braun, the NL’s MVP, was found guilty of a positive test and handed a 50 game suspension. He appealed with a questionable claim that the test was done wrong and that his sample was affected by it. Braun won and got his suspension lifted, playing on opening day to a crowd that gave him a standing ovation as he took the plate. Braun was the first player to challenge a drug test and win, stating in a speech that his integrity prevailed and showed he was truly a clean player. That speech came under scrutiny when the very next year, Braun was listed in connection with the Biogenesis lab in Miami that was shut down due to helping players juice up for competition. Braun was one of several players under the scrutiny but quietly took his suspension and did not address the media or fans well after the suspension was made. Fans turned their Braun jerseys to read “Fraud” and has never fully regained their respect with which they once had for him. In 2014 and 2015, Braun posted the two worst seasons (career wise) he has had in the MLB while also fighting constant injuries.

Melky Cabrera was an MVP candidate for the Giants in 2012 when he got caught in the summer. The Giants went on to make the playoffs and the World Series against the Tigers. Cabrera was eligible to return to the team for parts of the playoffs and the World Series, but the Giants left him off the roster. The team caught fire in the second half and seemed to rally behind Cabrera getting suspended, feeling like they could do it without their best player. The Giants and their fans rallied to win the World Series and Cabrera was sent away after the season where he has never regained his form. Steroids have ruined careers but have also made baseball better. Jenrry Mejia may be the first in a line of players to go down, but it is good that the system can work and it will punish guys that just don’t get it. Baseball may have a lot of problems to still hash out (cough, replay system, cough) but this one is working and players should just stay clean if they want a clean and happy career.

Super Bowl 50: Let’s Recap

Another wonderful NFL season came to a close yesterday and I’ll throw out another congrats to the Denver Broncos on winning their third Super Bowl championship. It looked like it was going to be, then there was no way, and then it was as Denver’s season had its definite ups and downs. The game was a heartbreaker for the Carolina Panthers in more ways than one in my eyes, so let’s do what everyone is doing today and recap what we learned from this game for both teams and the league going forward.

If we learned anything from this game, it’s that Denver’s defense was definitely for real. Holding MVP Cam Newton to an 18-41 performance and keeping him contained in the pocket to get beat around was the game plan from the outset and the Broncos never looked back. The secondary looked great (albeit Aqib Talib getting three penalties for being an idiot in the first half) and that allowed Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware to do their thing with Carolina’s offense line and hammer Cam Newton throughout the game. They always said defense wins championships and this one got it done. I was listening to First Take today and heard Skip Bayless try and say this game wasn’t all about Denver and their defense as he ran off stats how Peyton Manning had the worst QBR (10) from a Super bowl winning quarterback. He also said Denver was the first team to have less than 200 yards of offense and win the Super Bowl, so how wasn’t the defense the main reason for victory and deserving all of the praise? The defense dominated and got the job done.

Going to the other side of the defensive coin, Carolina had a defensive performance that was not bad by their standards at all. They only allowed 17 points and eight of those were after a fumble that started Denver’s drive at the Carolina six yard line. Throw in a holding penalty on Josh Norman in the end zone on third down and Denver only kicks a field goal on that drive. The majority of Denver’s offense came on the first drive of the game that set a tone for the Broncos by stalling in the red zone, proving Carolina played big when they had to. All in all, 17 points from that defense usually meant an easy win for a Panthers offense that seemed as though it was hard to keep them under 30. This squad played well, but it just wasn’t enough on this night.

This game can be looked at offensively from a maturity aspect, something that can be a little confusing. Denver ran a conservative game plan in most of the second half after seeing just how bad they were beating up on the Panthers. Towards the end of the game, Denver knew it wasn’t doing much on offense and decided to run the football on all three downs to kill off some clock and put the game back in the hands of their defense. Peyton Manning has always been one to take control of the game when he is on the field, but a guy who was struggling as much as he was would maybe lean towards giving the game to the squad getting it done. Manning has been known during his career to control the game and call his own plays, and why not, the guy is a hall of famer who has built his career through a command of the field. But when it was time to just run the ball and give the game to the defense, Manning did something he would not have done two years ago. In 2013, the Broncos had the league’s best offense and were decimated by the Seahawks in Super Bowl 48. That Peyton Manning would have seen a six point lead in the fourth quarter and said we need to score at all costs to bring us back up by two possessions. Instead, the Manning of today decided to not change plays, but instead listen to the coaches and let the defense determine the game. A mature Manning who knew his skills were not up to task put the game in the hands of the squad that could win, and it ended up working. Peyton got another ring and did it the way that he knew could win the game.

Carolina’s offense was booming coming into this game and was humbled quickly, only scoring 10 points on the night. Nothing looked like it would go right for the Panthers after Cam overthrew his receivers on the first couple of passes and the NFL catch rule drawing a failed challenge from Ron Rivera. Carolina was battered and beat and had no answer for what Denver was throwing at them all game. I talk about maturity with Cam Newton and how he handled himself during the second half and after the game. Cam looked like he wasn’t all that into it, slowly getting out of huddles and just lacking the energy that we normally see from him. To his credit, it would be tough to have energy and be motivated knowing Ware and Miller were going to hit him once or twice the next couple of plays, but the Super Bowl is the Super Bowl and excuses don’t come easy without criticism. He will endure all of the criticism in the world for not going after the fumble that eventually sealed their fate and for good reason. I know he was getting beat up and I know it was frustrating, but as a fan, seeing my quarterback not fight for that ball wouldn’t be infuriating, but disappointing. It would hurt my soul to know he wouldn’t fight for the whole game to try and give the team a chance, especially only down by six. The last two drives of the game were the telling points for me when I saw Cam fall over after the Norman penalty that led to the game ending touchdown and how he handled himself on the ensuing drive. I have been critical of Newton before, but those displays show how he hasn’t changed from a post I made two years ago after his first playoff game. The emphatic display of falling over and looking defeated shows the team a leader who had just been destroyed, killing off all motivation. The last drive had a couple of bad plays and Cam getting hit in the end zone where he whined and begged for a penalty. There was no push, no motivation, and no sense of urgency to get the drive going to try and win, just a defeated team that knew it was over. After Mike Tolbert had to tap Newton on the shoulder to tell him to get up out of the huddle, it was over. The appeal after the penalty he thought he deserved just showed all of the frustration come out from a guy who couldn’t lead when the going got tough.

Leadership is still the criticism of Cam Newton and his takeaway from this game. For Cam, it was ok to be celebrating and be cocky with how he conducted himself because he was winning, why not be cocky. The whole mantra players have in that situation is to try and stop it from happening, but when they can’t, they know the end result. I heard we didn’t see the real Cam Newton in this game because he wasn’t dancing and controlling the pace, but I would argue we did. We saw a guy who was finally put up against the wall and the adversity in his face. That guy crumbled at the pressure and showed he still can’t lead his team. To me, a true leader can stand through the adversity and battle to the end, something Cam still can’t do. Watching his press conference at the end of the game was embarrassing. He wasn’t wearing his normal attire, instead leaving his uniform on and donning a hoodie. He never tried to answer questions with any kind of detail, just giving one or two word answers. To his credit, yes, you just lost the biggest game of your life and it hurts. But in reality, this is the 50th time a team has lost the Super Bowl and has had to face the music. Everyone else took the podium and answered the tough questions, so why can’t you? Leaving the podium early leaves a sting to the football community because it was all good while the wins came in but it all stopped when a loss was undertaken. I know it is tough, but I would cut Cam a bigger break if he didn’t conduct himself the way he did all year. When you ride as high as he did, falling is gonna hurt, and answering up for it must be done. He still isn’t a leader and it showed.

Super Bowl 50 taught us some things we need to remember. Defense wins championships and don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Man up to face the music and those who humble themselves get rewarded. And, oh yea, another really goofy and weird halftime show.

LeBron the Coach Killer

Hello once again and my sincerest apologies for not writing since September. It has been a long time and while I wanted to write, school and two jobs got the best of me where any free time I had was spent trying to sleep (I mean heck, I needed the energy to do it all again the next day). This semester I have more time and promise I will have at least one post per week, but let’s get to the matter at hand instead of my excuses.

Tyronn Lue, that name has been more relevant to the world now than it was to me when I was battling my neighbor in NBA Live 2004 and he was using the Magic. I would prefer the Rockets because of Yao Ming and Steve Francis going off on both ends of the floor with the help of Glen Rice and his sweet mid range jumper. Nonetheless, I always would lose a close one as Tracy McGrady would go off for at least 30 and, wouldn’t you know it, Tyronn Lue at the point would hit a couple of dagger threes that I still cannot get over. Turning those dagger threes into a pulled out and, freshly sharpened might I add, dagger from the heart of David Blatt and you have Lue as the head coach of the Cavaliers. This is his first head coaching gig and he inherits the best team in the East with the best player on the planet. I would say that situation is more ideal than he could have imagined, but is it? LeBron James has never been an easy one to have on a team and has more of an influence than we might expect, but it’s not for a reason we always think about.

I will admit that when I found out about the Blatt firing, I knew the reasons why. The story starts at the beginning for LeBron. When he was drafted in 2003, the Cavaliers were a joke of the NBA, hence the first overall pick. In his first two-plus seasons, he went through three head coaches. This number can be concerning, but the combined record of the team during this stretch was 86-118. The team wasn’t good and the head coaches were not living up to what they should have been doing, winning games. Outside of these no namers, LeBron has played for three head coaches before Lue. Mike Brown rounded out his tenure in Cleveland before the decision to take his talents to South Beach and play for Erik Spoelstra before heading back to Cleveland and play a year and a half for David Blatt. Brown found success with James and brought one Finals appearance (LeBron’s first) that resulted in a sweep at the hands of the Spurs. Miami had its rough beginnings but brought two championships and four Finals appearances in four seasons. Blatt brought the Cavs to the Finals in his first year and was fired with a league best record (in the Eastern Conference) at 30-11. The success of these guys seems weird to think that they could be let go. If Brown and Spoelstra survived, why didn’t Blatt?

LeBron has always been the star since he was a little kid. He caught the spotlight in high school and never turned away. When he was drafted, the dynamic in sports started to shift that, at the time, gave LeBron an opportunity that he never realized. The dynamic between the player and coach has changed. Players seem to have all of the leverage these days. Upper level management needs approval from fans for just about anything they do, whether it is drafting players, picking them up in free agency, or releasing them. Sometimes upper level management can be harrassed and end up being right all along (hello Kristaps Porzingis). The dynamic has even changed to where a star player is more important than a coach or manager, shifting the power to a player based focus that breaks down the whole nebula of the system. Coaches and managers are there as the leaders, the boss of the players whose job is to run the team like a company, putting the company with the best opportunity to succeed. Employees get hired and fired to do specific tasks and have special jobs because of their experience. Now, the employees determine how things are run and it has the potential to work, but a leaderless cause has trouble. Player coaches were popular for a time but haven’t panned out because they just weren’t practical any more. Managing is key and an important aspect of the game, they need to be separate. If players, take over, the dual role can hurt their performance on the court.

So where does this leave LeBron and Blatt? LeBron and Mike Brown lasted because Brown was the head coach who brought him the only NBA success he knew. Brown was quickly disposed of after the 2010 season because it was obvious that LeBron wasn’t coming back and Dan Gilbert knew there just wasn’t the answer in Brown (he turned out to be right). LeBron was already a superstar but achieved it after the decision when he announced on live TV that he was going to the Heat. He and Erik Spoelstra had their rough spots, but Spoelstra lasted because he brought LeBron back to the Finals every year he was in Miami and allowed LeBron to be the guy on a team where he joined Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. After returning to Cleveland, the goal was championship or nothing and it would be done his way. David Blatt wasn’t meant to be a head coach but a figure head who LeBron could control, someone who wouldn’t trump him. Spoelstra had the only thing going for him that LeBron couldn’t control, Pat Riley. Riley could do whatever he wanted with the Heat and he like his head coach, so he was going to stay whether LeBron liked it or not. After another heart-breaking loss, James left for his home and an owner who would give him everything he wanted after condemning his move away four years earlier. Upper level management of the Cavaliers can say that LeBron didn’t have any say in the firing but how didn’t he? LeBron never liked Blatt and Dan Gilbert wants a title in Cleveland worse than ever. Gilbert needs LeBron to have success or he could walk again if he wants to get to Kobe’s mark of five championships. LeBron runs the organization he is with and if he doesn’t like his coach, well then the guy is gone. Player egos have become too big these days, and the Cavaliers are a great example of why that dude who would get me from the three point line all those years ago on the Playstation is head coaching the best team in the East.

What To Be Upset About

I just recently got cable back after moving into my new house this year and boy I tell you, I really didn’t miss it. I am referring to getting back to my constant hours of viewing ESPN and Sports Center to the point where I realized what was so nice about not watching them in the first place. All I have seen lately is what to do about Roger Goodell and the fallout that his court case has made with the New England Patriots. I never thought Tim Tebow would be talked about so little after getting cut from yet another team (he isn’t good enough to play quarterback at the NFL level, ESPN can stop trying to prove it to us), but I was wrong again. The court ruling irks me in several ways that has me wondering what I should be more upset about: the fact that Goodell and the NFL really have n concrete way of punishing players or even having the authority to do so, or the fact that the Patriots are the cheaters who always get caught and never really get punished.

My readers know that I am not one to sit and let the commissioner off easy for the awful job he has done since taking over for Paul Tagliabue in 2006. Spygate may have overwhelmed him a little at the beginning of his tenure with a problem to that magnitude which a commissioner had never really seen before. Goodell has been trying to make up for his Spygate debacle for years in the sense that he believes that he came down to easy on the league or acted with too much haste. ESPN’s Outside the Lines report about the rift that has been created between the Patriots and Goodell showed that it stemmed from Spygate, but what I believe is that the commissioner just wants to be a disciplinary force in a league that needs it. The NFL has become a symbol of law-breaking and violence that has reached a level that is simply unacceptable in any walk of life. When a jail sentence or domestic abuse case (which is the gravest of misfortunes) becomes virtually commonplace, it should signal that something has to be done. Goodell has done what he feels is his best to punish those who have done wrong to a degree that forces them to think about and never again do what they did. The problem is that there never was a set standard of discipline to the point where we can expect accountability. The NFL lost its case because a judge determined that Goodell was power hungry and needed to take a step back in how he was levying out suspensions and disciplining the league. It made sense that Josh Gordon got a one-year suspension for having a love for pot and Ray Rice getting two games for beating up his wife to no one even remotely familiar with the situation. Players can now see that Goodell has lost his ability to control them because it was determined that he never really had the capacity, either physically through the CBA or mentally through being the least bit fair, to do so in the first place. This is upsetting to fans and all associated with the NFL because its boss cannot perform his job. Players can now have the right to feel they should appeal their suspensions on the grounds that the commissioner was unfair and all of them now have a case. Goodell lost a shoe-in lawsuit, but I feel that is the least of his problems in his ultimate goal to “protect the shield.”

I want to come back to Josh Gordon to start off where I am really upset with the commissioner and the league. Gordon did not deserve a larger suspension than Rice, but his suspension was acceptable in terms of the bigger picture Goodell has tried to enforce. Goodell has always been a proponent of enforcing sricter action when someone is a repeat offender, and I am all for that. If a guy couldn’t learn his lesson the first time, then it makes sense to hit him harder so he can get it through his head. Gordon was caught with marijuana for the third time, garnering a big suspension for something that, while gaining more of a basis for complete legalization today, was still illegal where he was possessing it. A big suspension is fair for a guy who does the same illegal thing three times, repeat offenders should get punished. The Patriots were hit historically after Spygate with a $500,000 fine and loss of draft picks. They did something under strict violation of the rules and were punished. Outside the Lines made an effort to highlight the practice had been done by teams for decades, but the one to get caught was going to be the dummy who took the fall. The Patriots took the fall and now a new scandal they were caught in resulted in what should have been a big penalty, but it didn’t even come close to what should have been done.

My readers know I am a big New Orleans Saints fan and can probably guess where this is going. In 2012, the Saints were handed a $1 million fine, loss of draft picks and handed suspensions to several defensive players (key contributors and captains) and coaches because of a bounty program they were running. Bounty programs had existed for years in the NFL with the intent to protect players on offense from getting targeted unnecessarily for making plays or just being themselves. Cris Carter said he would throw money at defensive players who would protect him and take a shot at an opposing receiver when a defensive back would throw a late hit at him or do something stupid to try and injure him. Now I know that, again, the team to get caught doing it would be the one to get punished and the Saints were the ones who got caught, I have no argument there. The problem lies in the difference in suspensions for the two teams and the difference in affecting competition. To say that the Saints were affecting competition was true but they were hitting guys hard, sorry NFL. If they threw late hits or illegal hits, refs can penalize them by throwing personal foul penalties, ejections and even getting suspensions handed down that are actually documented in the CBA (isn’t that something?). The Patriots were caught illegally videotaping coaches signals, stealing play sheets and having microphone systems in place to radio what the perceived defenses were, something that could be argued that gave them a slight advantage. The sanctions¬†for both teams were not similar, and not just by the actual penalties themselves, but by the reasoning behind them. Goodell slapped a historic fine on the Saints after slapping a historic fine on the Patriots, but for the Saints, he said suspensions for the coaching staff were handed down because they are held to a higher standard than players and should have taken the necessary steps to end such a practice. Bill Bellichick was the puppet master and orchestrator of the Patriots scheme and never missed a game. The Patriots had their 2008 season to do with what they wanted and finished 11-5, missing the playoffs because the Dolphins had a miracle year and the AFC was strong, not to mention the real reason was that reigning MVP Tom Brady went down with a knee injury in the season opener that sidelined him for the rest of the year. The Saints lost their 2012 season and it can be argued that they never have made it back from that year.

So from all of this, what is there to be upset about? Roger Goodell has been a wishy-washy commissioner that has made his “protect the shield” campaign into a comedic pursuit that has dragged down the NFL with it. He has not been a driving force for change in the league and players know it. They can do what they want and when they want, knowing that whatever suspension they get will be reduced or rescinded by simply appealing the ruling. The Patriots are seen as the golden franchise of the NFL because they have gotten the success every team craves and never seem to meet the consequences. They were repeat offenders in Deflategate and, by the commissioner’s previous remarks, should have been hit hard after it was reported that Tom Brady most likely knew that cheating had been going on. Bellichick was never directly tied to it, but the evil mastermind and cheater he is more than likely would have known how his quarterback likes his footballs after coaching him for over a decade. No such penalties were seen. The team took on a comparable fine and lost a similar amount of draft picks. They cheated again and still got hit much less than the Saints in 2012. I am upset that the person who is supposed to keep things under control and enforce the rules has no idea as to how to do that, but what irks me is that the same team keeps breaking the rules and getting away with it. They say cheaters never prosper, but they have ever heard of the New England Patriots.

Hats Off to You Ladies!

I must admit that I am disappointed in myself. I have never been much of a fan of soccer and I have only recently come to realize just how sweet it can be when it is done right. The U.S. women are on top of the world once again in that sport I still need to learn more about and it comes with a sweet punch that I don’t think most readers would quite understand. Of course, this isn’t as close as the big one and never will be (if the U.S. men could ever win it – male sports will always dominate for better or for worse) but it shows something more. The women showed this nation just how important women’s sports can be, but also that, if done right, sports can motivate people in more ways than we might think.

The U.S. women have always been a powerhouse in the soccer world, and put themselves on display in this tournament. They never quite knew exactly how they were going to do it and every game seemed like a struggle, at least from what I heard. I mentioned I was disappointed earlier because I had not watched a single minute of the action outside of the replays and analysis that I watched while I was either at work or in the gym (most of the reasons why my posts have been so delayed). Formations were in question, personnel might have been tough to come by and it all just never seemed like it would fit so easily together. The women went on a tear in the early rounds, basically let Germany know who the real powerhouse was and got their chance at revenge after 2011 against Japan with Carli LLoyd scoring a hat trick in the first 16 minutes (and also receiving a huge popularity boost I might add – I didn’t know how to spell her name and just typed car into the search bar, she was the third option listed) and the team never looking back. This team was great because they took us in and showed that women’s sports matter whether we just want to think they don’t or, more realistically, just never gave it a chance. These women took us all for a ride on their journey through the great north and let us know how much we care about what they do. They did it with class and took in a nation for something special they set out to do four years ago. The nation had to embrace them, not the other way around.

So with all of this, I wonder why soccer isn’t more popular or why the men’s team cannot replicate the same success. Football in our country has a different context than in the rest of the world, something that captivates young boys away from the world’s game to a game that American families are raised on. Football is what you did with your dad every Sunday (and for most of us, Saturday afternoons) because he was home and it was time we got to spend with him. My family gravitated around the TV on Sundays because we had fun and love the excitement the Green Bay Packers delivered to our house. I brought in my New Orleans Saints fan-ness and my dad didn’t like it, but respected it because I was free to cheer for whom I wanted. We never watched soccer until the 2011 World Cup because there was something different about it and we were sick of baseball. I remember the game against Brazil where the USA needed to equalize and had almost nothing left in stoppage time. A Brazilian went down and killed most of the time, but the USA had one last push, prompting the player to get off her stretcher and be healed by a miracle. The referee saw the fake injury and added time to the game, allowing Megan Rampinoe to hit a corner off the head of Abby Wambach to tie the game and win it in penalties. It was great and I was also confused because I never knew my dad could get so into soccer. So what does this mean? It means the men can never succeed as long as we have our version of football. It brings families closer and is simply more exciting to the eye, especially when it is seen as a holiday when Sunday rolls around. The men have the same kind of talent and drive, but lose embracement because it is not what we enjoy in our football and people would rather play it because of that embrace. Women’s sports get hurt in these areas like basketball and softball, but will always have soccer because they always bring the best product in the world and have fans on their backs because it is a different kind of excitement, the kind of excitement we need.

So with that I want to say hats off to you ladies because you bring the USA the soccer it needs. The soccer we need is something we can embrace like all those Yiddos at Tottenham, the way the Brazilians bleed for their team and an enjoyment that captivates us, even just once every four years. It was a great ride, and we cannot wait to be with you every step of the way so you will have us by your side when you defend your title in 2019.

The Cardinal Way

Being a huge fan of the Chicago Cubs, I cannot stand the idea of this term. It has meant pain and suffering for many fans alike, as well as joy and celebration because it brings about two ends of the spectrum. Fans like myself hate it because it is everything that we have wanted to be. It stands for consistency that brings success, doing so in a way that most fans would feel the game is meant to be played. For Cardinals fans, it means that success you can expect every year through building a team the way it was meant to be done, the right way. When I heard the allegations of the Cardinals having an employee that used his previous relationship with the Houston Astros to gain inside information, I was hurt and somewhat delighted. I know that can sound terrible, but let me explain.

The Cardinal Way has always been described to me as the perfect formula. I have a friend from back home who is a die hard Brewers fan (being from Milwaukee, I know their fans well) and he went to school in St. Louis. He would always talk to me about Cardinals fans and their description of the Cardinal Way as almost like a religion, something he even bought into himself. It is talked about as a formula to create a successful baseball team and doing it the way that fans and teams alike want it to be done. It all starts with proper drafting and scouting. St. Louis has had one of the top farm systems in the majors for years and that is not by coincidence. The team focusses on drafting players that fit their needs and scouting players from other countries that have potential to make it in the big leagues. This sets the baseline for the team to make the right moves in free agency and trades that always seem to work out in their favor. Matt Holliday turned the team around when he was acquired from Oakland, not signing Albert Pujols turned out to be great, Lance Berkman helped a title run after his career seemed over, Rick Ankiel came out of nowhere and fell off after he was traded, and there are many more. The team brings success and only generates turmoil from fans who simply hate the success they see. Fans are taken in by the religion and left to adore the gold standard for how things are supposed to work in America’s past time. I hate it more than ever, but my friend knows I wish the Cubs could somehow do the same thing.

Hearing the FBI starting an investigation of the Cardinals was a shock because it was something no one saw coming. A revered team that isn’t one of the spending scum bags like the Yankees or Red Sox (ok I guess the Cubs too but they lose a lot so it is kind of forgiven) would never do something this bad to cheat, and almost surely wouldn’t get caught. I have made it vocal before that cheating happens in all areas of sports and is encouraged in some areas because teams are just doing what it takes to win, but this is a whole different level. Getting caught brings punishment with it and this is no different, only adding on the fact that using an employee to hack into another team’s database to steal information is, in all honesty, mind-blowing. Fans and others around the league know this is something that is too outlandish to even consider because the consequences could be so damning. The Cardinal Way is the exact thing that goes against this policy and is only more problematic for the league that they were the ones to do it. The investigation is just beginning and is in no way over, so making a conclusion of the findings would be in no one’s best interest. The league will let this play out, but the one guarantee is that the Cardinal Way will now be taken under heavy scrutiny. The Patriots have received heavy backlash on their success in the Brady-Belichick era because of scandals like Deflategate and Spygate. The Way will now be looked at with an asterisk because maybe it is now just an ideal that no one can really achieve. The Cardinals always had it laid out, but how long has potential tampering been going on and, even if only linked to this one incident, could it have been going on longer and we just don’t know about it? It is another shot to baseball trying to gain it’s reputation back after the steroid era in the worst possible way. This meant what baseball was really about, and now it is seen only as an ideal that no person or team can really be above.

The Signal Caller

I want to start off by apologizing for a lack of posts in recent weeks. School and work have had me bogged down but now I am back on the horse. I’m in a group on Facebook where we talk and post about sports and a question came up that really had me going. The question was how important is the catcher on the baseball field, simple yet difficult t pin down. I thought of it from a historical and analytical approach that led to a discussion with a bud of mine about the importance of a single player in a team game.

In the three major American sports (football, baseball and basketball – hockey is number four so when talking about the big three, hockey is the odd man out) the signal callers are the guys who run the show and touch the ball on every play. Football is where the term has its origins because the quarterback is the clear leader of the offense and has to call out plays as well as take the snap every down. Basketball and baseball are a little less obvious, but have important points to make about what their guys at the helm can do. The point guard in basketball gets the ball after every inbound, every rebound and brings it up almost every time down the floor pending the possession is not going for a fast break. He calls out the plays for the offense, but works as the oil to the offense in the sense that he facilitates the ball to his teammates and gets them to move so he can set them up in spots where they finish like clock work. Baseball has the catcher and the catcher is the most underrated position, in my opinion, in sports. Critics of this ideology say everything in baseball starts and ends with the pitcher, he throws the ball and it always comes back to him. He is the one who dictates the pace and he alone determines how well his team plays on the defensive end. Some of those arguments may sound like a little bit of a stretch, but they are rooted in a sense of saying that the catcher doesn’t matter at all and I want to say that simply isn’t true.

The catcher brings certain intangibles that are key to winning ball clubs. He is the one who sends the pitchers the signs for how to get a guy out. Before games, catchers will do countless hours of scouting work to determine how to get the guy on the mound to get the guy at the plate out. Pitchers are working day in and day out to fine-tune their stuff, catchers are simply there to use those tools to their best advantage. They work to get the pitcher to calm down if they are missing spots or just getting rocked when they feel like they are executing properly. Catchers call out the shifts on defense and even direct how the flow of a play is going to go. Much like in hockey, these guys stand at the plate and are enforcers because they need to stand tough against the other team’s hitters and be prepared for when base-runners are ready to nail them to score (at least for a time that was the case). I was told that catchers do not do nearly as much as I think because the pitcher ultimately decides what to throw and catchers are always at their mercy. I am not saying this is false because if a pitcher is getting called to throw the slider and wants to bring heat, there is technically nothing stopping him from doing so. While this happens from time to time, it is not as common as some may think. Pitchers and catchers will throw dummy signs out there and do countless shake-offs to accomplish two things: prevent sign stealing and confusing the batter.¬†A different set of signs or even two of them can prevent the other team from tipping off their hitters, especially with a runner on second when the catcher is in plain view. Pitchers have to adjust to these signs, but catchers always know what they want and usually make sure the pitcher is on the same page with a mound visit when he wants to switch things up. Shaking off signs always happens and can usually be seen to make hitters get out of their rhythm. The pitcher and catcher know what they want to throw, but they shake it off to make it look like a mistake will be made or the pitcher is downright stubborn. Usually, the pitcher goes with what the catcher wants and it works out in their favor.

When I was arguing this, I looked at recent championship teams and noticed they had two things in common, great pitching and a solid catcher. Great pitching shouldn’t come as a surprise because not giving up a lot of runs usually means your pitchers are doing well and you’re winning games. A solid catcher is the x-factor because he has to work with all of the starters, relievers, and seeing different guys game in and game out. The solid play from the signal caller behind the plate is always key to successful championship runs. It comes as no surprise that the two best teams as of late (the Giants and Cardinals) have two of the best catchers in the league and always find themselves in contention. Yadier Molina may be getting older, but he is still a perennial best and Buster Posey winning three championships in his first five seasons is reason enough. The Yankees in the early 00s had Jorge Posada be solid on defense, Jason Varitek was a staple for the Red Sox, Johnny Bench anchored the Big Red Machine of the early 90s and Yogi Berra’s 10+ championships speak for themselves alone. Catchers do their part on the field when it matters most and they anchor teams to win games, pitchers just take down instructions and pitch gems based on how their catcher sets them up for success.

Now, my bud said one man and one man alone cannot possibly be the sole difference in winning a championship for his team. We went and argued back and forth about how it could happen or if it is just a case that one man can only be the difference maker in the sense that he carries his team to victory, but does not simply do it all himself. I argued that one man cannot do everything by himself, he can carry the load, but not the entire load. We talked about the NBA and talked about three scenarios. When Lebron James took the Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals, he essentially did it all himself, unless of course there is any argument that Danny Gibson, Drew Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Sasha Pavlovic could say they carried any load. Lebron did it all himself up to that point but lost to a team that was established and had guys who could work together to make it all happen, Lebron wasn’t beating that. I mentioned the 2006 Miami Heat because Dwayne Wade was clearly the guy who brought them that championship, but had they not acquired Shaq earlier that season, I feel Miami would have been beat. Shaq was exiting the prime of his career but with a guy like Wade, he could be an enforcer on the inside and take pressure off of his young superstar teammate so he could shine. When Michael Jordan was mentioned, I was quick to react but was told that Jordan definitely did not do it all himself for his rings. The first three championships were aided by fellow hall-of-famer Scottie Pippen, B.J. Armstrong, and Horace Grant. These guys played big and allowed Jordan to be himself where he shined in history. The second three championships were helped by Pippen again as well as new additions in Dennis Rodman and Steve Kerr. Rodman did dirty work on the boards for his teammates and Kerr would sit along the three-point line and snipe shots when defenses covered the bigger scoring threats and left him wide open. Now, while Jordan is the most plausible guy to be able to do it on his own, I still think he himself could not have done it. Professional basketball players and teams are just too good for me to think that any one man on the basketball court, let alone any team sport, could win a championship. Lebron needed Wade and Bosh to help him and this year he has Kyrie Irving helping him at the point. Guys simply cannot do it all and need their teammates to help get some of the job done.

Signal callers mean everything for a team. They do the intangibles we don’t see in the stat line, but they make an impact their teammates respect. The team as a whole has to flourish to succeed, but having a key guy who knows what he is doing at the helm and handling the ball every play is always a recipe for success.

Free Agency Drops Atomic Bomb on NFL

I think that title pretty much takes care of it. I have gone through numerous March’s and analyzed every team’s needs for exactly what needs to make each one of them better going into the draft. You can always expect a couple of big moves here and there, along with guys getting overpaid and underpaid to go to respective locations where they think will either win a championship or set up their life after football. This year was interesting in the sense that the league we saw in 2014 will not be the same as we will see it taking the field this year in September. Several teams have completely changed their look and players have made questionable decisions to sign with teams that just don’t seem to make any sense. I wanted to wait for this post after the frenzy that happened two weeks ago when five big-time deals were made in five minutes. I thought things were over and then, all of a sudden, the face of the league changed yet again that left me jaw-dropped. I’ll break things down in a couple of categories to highlight what went well and what went wrong.

The two teams that left everyone baffled were clearly the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints. The Eagles fell off the map last year after a hot start that saw starting quarterback Nick Foles going down to injury and Marky Mark Sanchez leading the team to a spot on the couch watching the playoffs from home. LeSean McCoy had a bad year, so he got traded to the Bills for promising linebacker Kiko Alonso. Alonso raised eyebrows because he hails from Oregon where Chip Kelly used to coach and has shown to have an affinity to players hailing from his baby of a program. Kelly has made it clear that he wants the team to be his and only his, but some moves don’t make sense. The Eagles have signed and resigned guys that change the team in a way that Kelly can say is truly his. LeSean McCoy is great, but a down year last year made him seem expendable for a guy like DeMarco Murray who apparently fits Chip’s system better than his predecessor. Sam Bradford joined the team with a confusing trade involving starter Nick Foles, making analysts really ask themselves what Chip thinks he’s doing. Veterans have been let go and it is clear Kelly has an interest to somewhat improve his defense, but offense is the real key. Kelly hasn’t had a true franchise quarterback during his tenure in Philadelphia and, in a quarterback driven league, it has shown. A season missing the playoffs and another one with a first-round exit to a team that couldn’t win on the road (coincidentally the Saints) showed inconsistent quarterback play that hurt the team and the high-powered offense. Kelly is looking for his guy, and a push to move up and get another alum of his baby could be in the works.

The Saints made all of their moves because of salary cap issues, but even still a couple of moves don’t resonate well with me. The trade of Jimmy Graham left everyone baffled because of the fact he got traded, but also what the Saints got in return. Graham is one of the best weapons in the league and a favorite target of Drew Brees that has given the Saints endless options to execute on offense. He was traded because of his $10 million per year salary that the Saints felt was expendable. I think it made some sense because Graham has had injury issues the past two seasons and it was clear that he was not the same player when the injuries settled in. But even still, trading a guy like that to a team who has major interest (most teams in the league) would get some big time value for him and look good going forward. Instead the Saints got a first round pick and Max Unger, Seattle’s oft-injured center. Now any other sport in America with a position abbreviated with a “C” is a great player to get, except football where his value is not nearly that of a stud tight end. Unger also brings with him a big salary that only helped the Saints’ cap issues a little and saw them still need to dump other players. Ben Grubbs, the Pro Bowl guard, was released because of his big salary, Pierre Thomas, who made very little impact on the cap, was let go and Kenny Stills, the stud receiver who became Brees’ favorite deep ball threat and make no impact on the cap whatsoever, was traded to the Dolphins. Once the cap issue was settled by also asking players like Cam Jordan and Junior Gallette to restructure their contracts, the team went out and signed high-profile corner Brandon Browner and running back C.J. Spiller. Both signings show a commitment to defense and the run game, which the Saints need to do, but they gave away guys that helped the team be productive on offense and got questionable players in return. With two picks in the first round this year, the team has to grab an offensive lineman to help protect Brees and give a push up front for Spiller and Mark Ingraham, but the other one is a mystery. The team needed linebacker help after painstakingly letting go Curtis Lofton and also needed help in the secondary to cure the illness of awful play and missed tackles. Getting Danelle Ellerbe from the Dolphins alleviates the linebacker problem (even though he has an injury history) and now makes the team need a receiver. Knowing how the Saints will work, they may try to move up and trade at least one of those first-round picks, along with other picks in later rounds, to make a push for Amari Cooper. He will fit the system well and the team has a big need for capable receivers to pose a threat in the passing game the Saints haven’t felt they have had since 2011.

The most confusing signing of the year has easily gone to Julius Thomas. I get that he wanted to get paid and make money like Gronk and Jimmy Graham, but the downgrade here is just unbelievable. Going from a playoff shoe-in to the worst team in the league (sorry Jacksonville, Tampa can at least give us the illusion they can be successful) is a pure money move that is shameful. The Jaguars have no one to do anything on offense and Thomas doesn’t fix that. Blake Bortles still needs time to develop and with Cecil Shorts no longer on the team, opposing defenses have to make sure Thomas is in check and the game is over at that point. I know the Jaguars have money and can make an attractive offer to guys who want to play in Florida, but Miami is the place to go for anyone who knows Florida and Jacksonville just doesn’t have the fans or the draw to make it desirable. Julius Thomas saw the dollars, but what he didn’t see was the slow start to the end of his career that we will all forget about because that’s what the Jaguars do.

The best signing of the year goes to DeMarco Murray. Murray joins the Eagles on a fat contract after winning the rushing title for the Cowboys in 2014. Murray literally carried the Cowboys last year and made himself born again after such an impact. Murray signed with the Eagles after talks stalled with the Cowboys and everyone was left to wonder how Dallas could essentially let their main man walk. Dallas understood Murray was getting older and had an injury history that, in terms of signing free agents, cannot go ignored. Dallas ran him into the ground last year and decided there wasn’t much of a chance he could be the same guy at this point in his career. Chip Kelly came into play because Murray is the ideal down field runner for his system that led to LeSean McCoy being traded. Everyone in this situation seems to win but Murray is the clear number one. The Cowboys knew what they were giving up, and what they got back in Darren McFadden isn’t an upgrade. The Eagles will feed Murray whatever he wants, but if he gets injured, money goes down the drain. Murray wins because he will get the ball whenever he wants on the field, and if he gets injured, he will get a lot of money for sitting and watching. Good work DeMarco, good work indeed.

Going forward, the most interesting free agent case is actually that of Adrian Peterson. A recent Deadspin article made a pretty good point that Peterson isn’t thinking things through too clearly and it is hurting everyone involved. The Vikings have shown they really don’t want Peterson but also can’t let him go because of his trade value. Peterson is worth a lot in a trade, but his 3-year, $45 million contract is something teams won’t want to take the risk on, especially for a 30-year old running back. Releasing him gives Peterson what he wants but gives the Vikings nothing for a high-priced commodity, so his release won’t happen. Peterson and his agent have said the team isn’t a good fit any more, which is ridiculous. Minnesota is a team built on the run and needs a stable ground game to let second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater evolve and progress into a comfort zone with the starting job. He showed signs of promise last year, but pressure situations made him look like the rookie he definitely was. I don’t want to speculate any further, but the situation is a mess and if the Vikings decide to release Peterson, free agency will be far from over. Hopefully I’ve left some insight on the explosion we just saw and my analysis wasn’t as cold cut as I like it to be because, in all honesty, I am still trying to figure out some of these moves myself. This is what I have so far, but we still have a long way to go before we see if I was right or dead wrong.

Escape From Alcatraz

It almost feels like a grand escape. Free agency this year in the NFL has been a mess and has made thousands of fans question what the heck is going on. I’ve never seen something quite like this with transactions happening left and right, almost leaving every player feeling no fan is safe. As I’m sure you guys have gathered, I am a big New Orleans Saints fan and this offseason has been painful for me. Seeing guys I have loved get let go because of a mis-managed salary cap has hurt in more ways than one, but I don’t want to write a post about that until the storm is calmed down because, for all we know, there are still five big names that haven’t been signed or traded just yet. This post is going to take us close to Alcatraz in the bay area of San Francisco.

The 49ers came off of their worst season under Jim Harbaugh during his four year tenure and most fans wanted to know how they went from literally an NFC Championship mainstay to missing the playoffs. Colin Kaepernick wasn’t all that great last year, Frank Gore was aging, Navarro Bowman missed most of the year with his torn ACL, Aldo Smith had rehab to attend and Patrick Willis didn’t play since Week 6 with a toe injury. It was a season that ended pretty miserably for the team and fans, which saw the organization create a rift between itself and coach Harbaugh, eventually leading to the two sides parting ways and the embattled coach going to his alma matter Michigan. I would argue this played a major issue, but the season had hinted it would go this way for the 49ers before it even started. The team played their first season in new Levi’s Stadium, located in Santa Clara. It ushered in a new era of San Francisco football as city landmark Candlestick Park was finally being torn down for bigger and better things. The stadium seemed like a hit but quickly struck problems for fans and the team. The Niners didn’t play well at home, limping to a 4-4 regular season record and splitting both home games in the preseason. Fans were upset at team play, but also how expensive stadium prices were, ranking near the top in fan cost in terms of parking, food and merchandise. The season saw fans generally upset overall and the players took note, showing their frustrations this offseason.

I was talking with my roommate about why everyone left the 49ers and my first thought was Levi’s Stadium. He didn’t understand at first, but things slowly started to unravel. The stadium is 45 minutes driving away from San Francisco, the likely living spot for most players on the team because they play in the city and Candlestick Park was located within San Francisco. Taking this to a simpler level, most people who have commutes to work hate them, especially those lasting more than an hour. I would guess that players leaving the city to go to the stadium would experience 15-20 minutes of traffic (give or take) and it would take them a least an hour to get to their place of business. This may not seem as big of an issue because there are only 10 trips a player has to make to home games, but trips to the practice facility happen almost every day of the week. Teams want their practice facility located close to the stadium as a convenience for their players, and the 49ers followed suit by having the facility next to the stadium in Santa Clara. The problem here unsettles players because that is at least an hour drive to work and back every day, every day! Driving that much to get to work for an NFL player would be taxing enough and is definitely something that I’m sure no player would ever enjoy doing, both physically and financially.

I mention financially because San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the United States to live within. California already taxes people through the roof, but San Fran is just an expensive place to be in general, something we know professional athletes can easily afford. Even still, an athlete living in San Francisco would see his money get depleted quicker than other, and not by the way he wishes it would get depleted. So owning what is likely to be an expensive home, expensive car and expensive lifestyle, coupled with high taxes and the longest commute to work in football, you have players that would rather play elsewhere. The California lifestyle is great and, being from Wisconsin, I would love to live it at least for a little while, but having money sucked out as quickly as California football players have and no one would want to go there. Players chose to search other options in free agency because they did not want to get paid less than they were worth, even if the team was matching full market value. Patrick Willis retired, in my mind, because he didn’t want to commit to a cause that wasn’t going to go anywhere in the next few years and spend more money than he had to. We as fans still like to think that football is all about passion and that players still only care about winning championships over money. The reality is that football is a business and these guys do not want to work somewhere where they are getting paid less than they are valued, and work at a place that takes so much time on the commute. The 49ers can still be a good team and will still compete, but the complete changeover from two seasons ago in Candlestick to last season in Levi’s hurt them for this offseason. The has to adjust to not just the changing face of the NFL, but a new lifestyle that is honestly one of the worst the NFL has to offer.