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July 26, 2011

Massive NFL Preview–Part 2

If you missed Part 1, here is is. 

The NFL Offseason is officially under way! For a comprehensive look at what actually happened during this cruel and unusual lockout (I know it didn’t miss any games but it was still very stressful!), please see Peter King’s MMQB.

As training camps start to open, undrafted free agents are signed, and free agent negotiations begin, I will continue my preview today by power ranking coaches. As I said yesterday, these rankings will be somewhat correlative because it is pretty difficult to differentiate between the two. New coaches and GMs will be ranked last because of the disadvantage they are at with the shortened offseason.

COACHES

32. Mike Munchak – Tennessee Titans

Munchak has served as the franchise’s offensive line coach since 1997 when it was the Tennessee Oilers. I feel like his name makes him sound like a recurring character in a fast food commercial or Pacman’s brother or something.

32. Pat Shurmur – Cleveland Browns

Shurmur was the offensive coordinator for the Rams the last two seasons after serving as quarterbacks coach for the Eagles for ten years. I am not quite sure why the Browns fired Eric Mangini. I once wrote that Mangini could perhaps win more games by being less douchey, and he actually seemed to take the advice (I of course take full credit). The Browns went 5-11 last year but were one of those good bad teams that just seemed to blow close games late. I felt like they were on the way up and I don’t know if it was the best decision to fire the coach heading into what was of course going to be a shortened offseason.

32. Ron Rivera (Carolina Panthers)

Rivera was the defensive coordinator for the Chargers the last three seasons and held this position with the Bears in 2004-2006. Not necessarily due to any fault of Rivera, the Panthers are going to struggle this season. Quite possibly, the only time they will be featured on the Red Zone Channel will be when they are on defense.

32. Jim Harbaugh (San Francisco 49ers)

Harbaugh is the latest example of heralded college coach to get a huge contract in the NFL despite a mountain of evidence to prove that this doesn’t work. Pete Carroll’s Seahawks had a decent season in an awful division last year and somehow won a playoff game but besides that every college coach since Jimmy Johnson has failed miserably in the pros (see Steve Spurrier, Dennis Erickson, and Butch Davis to name a few). Harbaugh may buck this trend but if I were building an NFL franchise I would look for experienced coordinators to make head coaches as opposed to looking into the college ranks.

28. John Fox (Denver Broncos)

Fox is with a new team but at least he has previous experience as a head coach. It will be interesting to see how he and Tim Tebow work together.

27. Hue Jackson (Oakland Raiders)

Jackson was the team’s offensive coordinator last season so that side of the ball shouldn’t see too much of a shift. Judging by recent history, though, I wouldn’t expect him to be the Raiders’ head coach for too long; Jackson is the sixth Raiders head coach since Jon Gruden left after the 2001 season. Bill Callahan, Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, and Tom Cable have all come and gone since.

25 (tie). Chan Gailey (Buffalo Bills)

If you don’t have anything nice to say about someone don’t say it at all (note: I will be breaking this rule in a couple slots when it is Mike Shanahan’s turn).

25 (tie). Gary Kubiak (Houston Texans)

There is approximately a 100% chance that Kubiak would have been fired if the league was not headed into a lockout this offseason.

24. Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati Bengals)

I would say the same for him as Kubiak if the Bengals had a real general manager and a real organization but that’s not the case so I’m not really sure. I wouldn’t be inspired by him if I were a Bengals fan though.

23. Mike Shanahan (Washington Redskins)

I might have him ranked too high on account of his two Super Bowl rings in the 90s. Shanahan is a complete megalomaniac with no sense of self-awareness or ability to relate to this generation of players. Prior to last season, Shanahan had the Redskins trade a 2nd round pick for Donovan McNabb. McNabb played a lot like anybody would have expected him to, which is to say as a decent leader but generally inaccurate, completing 58.3% of his passes (his career average is 58.9%). Shanahan benched McNabb for Rex Grossman and now plans to install John Beck or Matt Leinart (he may be available) as the starter.

Instead of figuring out a way to use Albert Haynesworth as a wrecking ball, Shanahan isolated and benched him. With Haynesworth and McNabb, Shanahan has shown a unique willingness to lose battles amidst losing the war. I would not be surprised if the Redskins quit on Shanahan sometime around Week 4.

22. Tony Sparano (Miami Dolphins)

Sparano would have been fired before this season if a) Jim Harbaugh had accepted the Dolphins job, or b) if there wasn’t a lockout.

21. Ken Whisenhunt (Arizona Cardinals)

Whisenhunt seems like kind of a dick, as many football coaches do. Anyone have an opinion on him? If the Cardinals get Kevin Kolb, they are definitely contenders in the NFC West.

20. Todd Haley (Kansas City Chiefs)

Haley is a good offensive mind but also an egomaniac/douche. I think the Chiefs generally have a good infrastructure to build on, at least on offense, though.

19. Leslie Frazier (Minnesota Vikings)

The Vikings were smart to fire Brad Childress in the middle of the season last year to get Frazier some experience with authority and game management before the shortened offseason. The Vikings would probably be best served in the long run by liquidating their assets and rebuilding this season, though.

17 (tie). Jason Garrett (Dallas Cowboys)

Like the Vikings, the Cowboys were smart to install Garrett as head coach in the middle of last season. After starting 1-7 under Wade Philips, the Cowboys finished the season at 5-3 with Garrett in command. I would have him ranked higher if he had a full training camp to further acclimate himself.

17 (tie). Jim Schwartz (Detroit Lions)

Although the Lions went 6-10 last season, it was a hard fought 6-10. They appear to be trended upwards as a franchise and project to have an utterly dominant defensive line. Playing them twice a season will no longer be a cakewalk for the Vikings, Bears, and Packers.

16. Jack Del Rio (Jacksonville Jaguars)

I am not sure whether Del Rio would still have his job without the lockout but here we are. Has a team been more consistently mediocre than the Jaguars during Del Rio’s tenure? In his eight years as head coach, the Jaguars are 65-63 in the regular season and 1-2 in the playoffs.

15. Steve Spagnuolo (St. Louis Rams)

The defensive coordinator of the 2007 Super Bowl champion New York Giants seems to be building a solid foundation in St. Louis. The Rams should continue to improve this season on their gradual ascent from cellar dwellers to contenders.

14. Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks)

A year ago I never would have imagined myself ranking Carroll this high but he got the Seahawks into the playoffs and instilled so much irrational confidence in them that they were able to beat the defending champion Saints in the first round. I would imagine that the Seahawks drop back a little bit this year, pending their quarterback situation.

13. Norv Turner (San Diego Chargers)

Turner is officially the last of the group who may have been fired if the Lockout wasn’t coming. He also benefits in the rankings because AJ Smith, despite being a colossal prick (“the Lord of no Rings“), is a great talent evaluator and as I said before it is pretty hard for me to differentiate coaches from their front offices.

12. Lovie Smith (Chicago Bears)

It is to Smith’s great credit that the Bears were able to be one of the last four teams playing last season but have the 16th best quarterback. The bears win ugly but under Smith (63-49 in seven regular seasons), they win more than they lose.

11. Raheem Morris (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

Morris guided a Bucs team devoid of name brand talent to a 10-6 record last season, Morris’s second as head coach. He seems to have his team disciplined, hungry, and confident and this, with Josh Freeman’s growth, should bode well for the medium-term franchise’s future.

10. Peyton Manning (Indianapolis Colts)

I am aware that Jim Caldwell technically holds this title but does anyone doubt that Manning has ultimate, final authority? I am not sure if we will ever see a quarterback double as offensive coordinator to the extent that Manning has again. Jason Whitlock thinks this inhibits Manning in the playoffs. It may or may not; it will be interesting to see if Manning becomes a coach or a broadcaster when he retires.

8 (tie). John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens)

It is hard to figure out how valuable Harbaugh is because Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome is great. Under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 32-16 in the regular season and 4-3 in the playoffs. Like the Falcons, they are disciplined and limit their own mistakes.

8 (tie). Mike Smith (Atlanta Falcons)

Very quietly, the Falcons are 33-15 in the regular season (but 0-2 in the playoffs) under Smith. They play disciplined, fundamental football, forcing opponents’ mistakes while limiting their own. They are perhaps a year or two away from legitimately competing for Super Bowls.

7. Andy Reid (Philadelphia Eagles)

Andy Reid’s issues with clock and game management are well documented. It is incomprehensible that he hasn’t delegated this responsibility yet and will cost the Eagles 1-3 games per season as long as he is the head coach. That being said, the Eagles are 118-73 in the regular season and 10-9 in the playoffs during Reid’s tenure. With such a large sample size, it is clear that Reid has sound game plans and is a solid motivator for his squad.

Over/under: 5,000: Big Macs Reid has consumed in 11 seasons as Eagles head coach. Who ya got?

6. Tom Coughlin (New York Giants)

Coughlin might be ranked too high because of the Giants Super Bowl victory over the Patriots but I think that for now he belongs above Reid, Smith, and Harbaugh.

5. Rex Ryan (New York Jets)

People hate on Rex a lot but his Jets have reached two straight AFC championship games. His players love him and other players want to go to the Jets to play for him. Because people get so annoyed when he speaks, they tend to underrate his ability as both a tactician and motivator.

4. Sean Payton (New Orleans Saints)

It’s weird how the Payton/vicodin scandal just kind of went away. I will never understand how some scandals have legs and some don’t.

3. Mike McCarthy (Green Bay Packers)

McCarthy has certainly gone through his own clock management trials and tribulations but the fact of the matter is that he’s got the belt right now and that entitles him to potentially be overrated. Without fail, McCarthy seems to always have the perfect offensive game plan. The Packers seem to love playing for McCarthy but do not abuse him even though he isn’t an unrepentant disciplinarian.

2. Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers)

Tomlin is probably the coolest person I know of. He just looks utterly unflappable. Has anything ever upset him? I would do terrible things for his sense of calmness.

1. Bill Belichick (New England  Patriots)

It doesn’t seem like it but it has now been seven years since the Pats won a Super Bowl. This either means that they are due or that we may need to start re-thinking Brady and Belichick’s stranglehold on the #1 slots.


July 24, 2011

Massive NFL Preview–Part 1

One of the foremost tenets that makes the NFL the most popular sports league in America is its parity. For the most part, each new season is a blank slate and your favorite team should have a chance to at the very least compete for the playoffs. Once in, anything can happen in discrete one-game sample sizes. In baseball, the larger market franchises can just sign all the best players (see the Yankees for the most glaring example) and the NBA, while not necessarily driven by geographic location, is dominated by stars so much so that there exists a no-mans land between the best eight teams and worst eight teams where teams are too good to qualify for a top lottery pick and not good enough to make any noise in the playoffs. The NBA’s financial system is broken and we may lose the entire season before it is fixed.

In the past, more than 80% of total NFL and club revenue has been put into a shared pool. Recognizing that the new CBA’s including a salary floor as well as a salary cap would have painful financial effects for smaller market teams, the NFL owners approved a new supplemental revenue sharing program to help small market franchises continue to keep pace with teams from bigger cities. While this revenue sharing program will continue to drive equality throughout the league in the long-term, the structure of this shortened offseason will cause great disparity between the haves and have nots.

In football, you NEED a great quarterback, the ability to protect your great quarterback, and a pass rusher or two to disrupt the other team’s quarterback. The rest of the pieces on the 53-man active roster are of varying importance but can be plugged in over the course of a couple years with savvy strategy from the front office and execution in coaching. Constructing and training a football team is a fluid process in which the end result is derived from the work done during many seasons and offseasons.

This season, though, will be different. As PFT’s Gregg Rosenthal wrote, the shortened free agency period, in addition to having two free agent classes, will separate the best front offices from those that are inexperienced or incompetent. “This free agent period should reverberate for years after, rewarding those teams that were most nimble and wise identifying talent,” Rosenthal writes. While free agency will have consequences for years, disparity will also be driven to a large, perhaps greater, extent this season by quality and continuity of coaches and quarterbacks.

Teams with established coaches and quarterbacks will be best equipped to handle the shorter offseason and come out of the gate hot. Contrastly, teams that have new or bad coaches and/or quarterbacks are likely to struggle immensely. New coaches will especially be handicapped in evaluating their existing talent, implementing new systems, and scouting opponents. There is only so much of this evaluation that can be done from tape, especially with an uncontrollable variable of which players do and don’t show up to camp in shape.

Therefore, despite new measures for revenue sharing, this NFL season, along with a ripple effect in future seasons, will likely resemble the NBA where there are distinct tiers between very good teams in title contention, franchises in no-man’s land, and those that are unwatchably awful and jockeying for optimal draft position.

This is Part 1 of what will be a 3-part column that will evaluate and rank how teams are equipped to handle this tumultuous offseason. I will be independently power ranking quarterbacks, coaches, and front offices 32-1. The teams with the lowest total scores are the ones that I think will thrive this season (and potentially into the future) while those with the highest totals are the frontrunners in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. Before I rank the quarterbacks today, a few quick notes on my ranking methodology:

  • Rankings were generally derived qualitatively (side note: my friends Tyler and Trevor can’t stand that this is how I evaluate stocks). I could probably use Football Outsiders metrics for this but it is more fun to try to guess on my own and I am ill-equipped to develop my own quantitative metrics for projecting quarterback, coaching, or front office performance for the purposes of this column. I will be very interested to see how my eyeball projections compare with those of Football Outsiders when their almanac arrives at my doorstep. I do, however, reserve the right to use stats if they strengthen conclusions that I already drew on my own.
  • New coaches, quarterbacks, and front offices are highly penalized, not necessarily because of demerits (although that is certainly the case with some quarterbacks) but because I do not feel that there will be enough time to adequately develop a system.
  • Because those that are new are SO screwed and those that are awful are SO bad, instead of tying for last at, say, #27, I made last place #32 to better reflect the disparity that I think will happen between the teams in no man’s land and the ones that just completely suck.
  • Rankings reflect my projected performance for this season. Previous seasons obviously have a bearing in my projections but I unscientifically account for output jumps and drops, especially for quarterbacks. Also, I can only judge teams for the quarterbacks they already have on their rosters. This means that on this list, Chris Simms, Derek Anderson, and Joe Webb are projected as starters even though I imagine that they will be replaced by Matt Hasselbeck, Kevin Kolb, and Brett Favre respectively.
  • It am not quite sure how to differentiate between coaching and front office when giving credit for team success. As such, these ranking will generally be correlated.
  • Anyone reading this who knows me also knows that I am a gigantic Packers fan. I have them ranked very high in all three categories, quite possibly higher than others would rank them. However, given that THEY ARE THE DEFENDING SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS and I do actually consider myself to be mostly objective when it comes to their status, I am keeping their rankings in accordance with my instincts. Also, it’s my list/preview and I can rig the Packers on top of it if I feel like it. Whatever, I do what I want.
Enough of my babbling, it is now time for the QUARTERBACK POWER RANKINGS:
ANDREW LUCK SWEEPSTAKES
32 (tie). Joe Webb (Minnesota Vikings)
I actually think that with all this new Favre un-retirement talk (surprise!), he ends up back in Minnesota. If the rest of this list remained the same (it won’t but I can’t get into the game of accounting for hypotheticals by accounting for other hypotheticals), Favre would rank 21st. Even though he is a fragile statue and incalculably annoying and narcissistic, he knows the Vikings system, gets along with the locker room, and is better than more than a third of the projected NFL starters. Considering how many other teams the Vikings would have to compete with to Luck into Andrew (see below, it’s quite extensive), the Vikings might as well bring back Favre and use him to sell tickets until he gets hurt. This job is eventually Christian Ponder’s, perhaps by the middle of this season.
32 (tie). Jordan Palmer (Cincinnati Bengals)
I am taking Carson Palmer at his word that he won’t play for the Bengals again, which is actually probably a good thing for them. I have yet to understand why anybody would be worried about that. For some reason people who cover football seem to forget how DREADFUL Carson Palmer was last season; even if he were coming back he would only rank 26th on this list. He has no arm strength left and is acutely aware that the Bengals are going nowhere the next few seasons, if ever. Getting dumped by Carson Palmer and losing an extra game or two this season is a good thing for the Bengals organization.
32 (tie). Jimmy Clausen (Carolina Panthers)
In all likelihood, Clausen is just keeping the seat warm for a few weeks for Cam Newton. It is very hard to be a crappier quarterback than Jimmy Clausen was last season; he went 1-9 as a starter, completing just 52.5% of his passes while throwing three touchdowns and nine interceptions. In doing so, he exhibited even worse leadership skills and body language. It will be interesting to see how his UFL career pans out in a few years.
32 (tie). John Beck (Washington Redskins)
Beck has four career starts (all in 2007) and lost all of them. That the Redskins are rumored to want to acquire Matt Leinart and put he and Beck in competition really shows great disrespect to Redskins fans as well as the word competition. More on Mike Shanahan’s megalomania to come tomorrow.
32 (tie). Chris Simms (Tennessee Titans)
In his indistinguished career, Simms has posted a 7-9 record with 12 touchdown passes, 18 interceptions, and one ruptured spleen.
32 (tie). Charlie Whitehurst (Seattle Seahawks)
Whitehurst has only started two games in his career. Nothing really to go on here but he has to be considered at the top of this group of six because we KNOW that the rest of them suck.
UGH, REALLY?!
26. Derek Anderson (Arizona Cardinals)
Anderson is likely to be replaced on this list by Kevin Kolb; thankfully this hasn’t happened yet which gives me an excuse to link to his legendary tirade.
25. Tim Tebow (Denver Broncos)
I actually think that Tebow has the chance to develop quite well and to eventually be an above average NFL starter. Unfortunately, he will have a new coach (John Fox) to adapt to. Tebow would have greatly benefitted from continuity and longer training camp this offseason.
24. Chad Henne (Miami Dolphins)
23. Alex Smith (San Francisco 49ers)
22. Jason Campbell (Oakland Raiders)
We have extensive sample sizes on these three which show that having them as your starting quarterback and winning are inversely correlated.
Every year, I am perplexed as to why there are not 32 good punters and kickers but ESPECIALLY as to why there are not 32 good quarterbacks. Being an NFL starting quarterback is perhaps the most sought after job for males in the United States (I would rather be an above average NFL starting QB than president). Admittedly, Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre, Matt Hasselbeck, Kyle Orton and Kevin Kolb would probably be better 2011 quarterbacks than the ten above. However, even if all five replace somebody already named on this list, with the exception of Kolb and Orton (projected in mid-to-late teens if they were starters), they are a) not that good, and b) five of the terrible quarterbacks above would still be starters. This is before injuries.
PROBABLY A YEAR AWAY FROM BEING SERVICEABLE
22. Colt McCoy (Cleveland Browns)
Although he went 2-6 as a starter last season, Colt McCoy played decently for a rookie quarterback, completing 60.8% of his passes and throwing six touchdowns and nine interceptions. Like Tebow, McCoy would have benefitted from more training camp and organizational continuity. I think he is the Browns starter for the foreseeable future, though.
MEH
18 (tie). David Garrard (Jacksonville Jaguars)
18 (tie). Ryan Fitzpatrick (Buffalo Bills)
18 (tie). Matthew Stafford
Garrard and Fitzpatrick don’t really bring very much to the table but also don’t take anything away. Garrard is starting until Blaine Gabbert is ready and will likely get benched if/when the Jaguars are out of contention.
Stafford would be ranked a little higher if he wasn’t made of glass. We know he will get hurt but we don’t know when.
1-2 YEARS FROM PERHAPS BEING ELITE
17. Sam Bradford (St. Louis Rams)
Bradford had one of the better rookie quarterback seasons ever, going 7-9, completing 60% of his passes, and throwing 18 TDs and 15 INTs. The Rams were in contention to win the dismal NFC West until the final week last season and would be wise to get Bradford a #1 receiver.
PRETTY GOOD IDEA OF WHAT TO EXPECT OVER THE COURSE OF THE SEASON
16. Jay Cutler (Chicago Bears)
Cutler has the highest intra-game variance of these three with a much lower floor and much higher ceiling. I hate him as an athlete and a Bear and take extreme pleasure from his failures. He will make outstanding throws and have tremendous games and he will make horrific throws and have abysmal games. It all evens out to render him as a league average starting quarterback.
15. Matt Cassel (Kansas City Chiefs)
14. Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens)
I might be underrating Flacco (32-16 career record but with a consistently great defense) because his name is uninspiring and overrating Cassel (24-21 career record) because he was so good on the Patriots. Whatever. Neither is particularly interesting.
CAN’T THINK OF A GOOD TITLE FOR THIS TIER
13. Mark Sanchez (New York Jets)
I don’t really care if statistics say that Flacco and Cassel are better than Sanchez or say that the Jets got to two straight AFC Championship games in spite of him. This list was derived qualitatively and he has consistently demonstrated poise and leadership in big games.
12. Michael Vick (Philadelphia Eagles)
If Vick was not such a great story of redemption or so electrifying, I would probably be ranking him lower based on his overall merits. He can definitely win games on his own but he is also a huge injury risk and is not the most accurate passer (55.3% career completion percentage). If I was the Eagles GM (and Eagles fans should probably be pretty glad overall that I am not), I would not be so fast to trade Kolb. Competition would bring out the best in Vick and Kolb would provide injury insurance. There is no way that Vick stays healthy for the whole season.
WON’T WIN GAME ON OWN BUT SURE CAN LOSE IT
10 (tie). Eli Manning (New York Giants)
10 (tie). Tony Romo (Dallas Cowboys)
I might be overrating Manning because he has won a Super Bowl and Tony Romo because of his name and the fact that it is convenient for me to group him with Eli. Both are effective but not transcendent and both are capable of having AWFUL games that can murder their real teams and your fantasy team.
POTENTIAL TO MAKE LEAP TO ELITE
9. Matt Schaub (Houston Texans)
Schaub would go above the next two if this was a fantasy draft instead of “real” projected quarterback performance. The Texans are my sleeper pick to make the playoffs this season.
8. Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons)
I think Matt Ryan has a big year and the Falcons offense will be hard to stop. I have nothing interesting to say about him.
7. Josh Freeman (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Jaaaaaaaaaaaaash Freeman wins football games (actual career record 13-12 but 10-6 last year!) He has the tangibles and intangibles to be great. The Buccaneers are a threat to win a playoff game or two this season.
ELITE
6. Philip Rivers (San Diego Chargers)
Where does one file a petition for us all to start calling him the hatable Philip Rivers?
Like Brett Favre in the mid-90s and Peyton Manning, Rivers just invents quality receivers.
5. Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Can’t nobody take Ben’s pride? Can’t nobody hollld Ben dowwwwwwwn. Oh no, he’s got to keep on moving.
ELITEST (not a real word but it should be)
4. Drew Brees
3. Aaron Rodgers
2. Peyton Manning
1. Tom Brady
Not too much I could say about the above four that hasn’t already been said. I wanted to rank Rodgers as #1 but was talked out of it by the people whose counsel I sought before writing this. Last year was only his third year as a starter and I would project growth for him as well as slight decline (while maintaining elitest status) for Manning and Brady and a plateau for Brees. Rodgers could very well be #1 this season but Brady and Manning have earned the right to be 1 and 2 until it is pried from their cold, dead hands.
Part 2 (coach and GM rankings) coming tomorrow.

July 22, 2011

Just END

To whom it may concern:

Pretty please with chocolate fudge, whipped cream, and a cherry on top end the NFL Lockout as soon as humanly possible. Like, today or tomorrow. I am well aware this is an incalculably huge long-term deal that needs to be carefully weighed by both sides, that the Lockout going to end at some point in semi-near-ish future, and that we aren’t actually going to miss any games (even of the intolerable preseason variety). I don’t care. I just want this to end. Now.

I am sick and tired of reading about percentage splits, about litigation, about whatever de-certification and re-certification of a labor union actually are along with their ramifications. I of course want player safety and retired player benefits to be secured but I don’t want to hear squabbling about the process of getting there. I NEVER want to read pointed, inciting quotes from Jeff Pash or Jeffrey Kessler again and I want to see their arrogant, smug faces on TV even less. I hope that with their cut of the legal fees from this whole fiasco, they build 20,000 square foot houses constructed of solid gold in Antigua and stay OUT of my life forever.

I got my hopes up yesterday for like FIVE MINUTES when the owners held a press conference to triumphantly celebrate the ratification of a new CBA. I didn’t even mind seeing Jeff Pash or Jerry Richardson’s fat, privileged faces on TV talking about how there were gives and takes in the negotiations but that they were relieved the process was over. Then we found out that the players thought the owners tried to ram through a shady deal including provisions that were never agreed upon, that the players felt tricked, duped, led astray, hoodwinked, bamboozled by the owners. BASTARDS.

I don’t care about the personal conduct policy, drug testing, two-a-days, or ANYTHING ELSE. I just want the crazy orgasm that will be the ensuing free agency period to happen so I actually have things to write about and I can finally PREPARE FOR MY FANTASY DRAFTS. I really don’t think the involved parties truly understand what is at stake here with this. Fantasy draft preparation is a delicate process which usually takes MONTHS and we are going to have to cram it into a few short weeks, adapting to roster changes at a perilous rate. We need to read Football Outsiders and listen to Matthew Berry podcasts. THIS TAKES TIME AND EFFORT and the time will be short.

Like Drew Magary, the Lockout has made me forget what is going on in the NFL. Normally, I would have been keeping up with training camp battles, injuries, free agency, and potential rookie breakouts, using every nugget of information to carefully adapt my fantasy strategy. THIS WAS MY COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE and I am scared that people who don’t do their homework all summer will be rewarded.

Don’t just end the Lockout for me. Do it for the media. Every NFL reporter who usually gives us interesting football nuggets has been relegated to covering the Lockout. Do it for Mike Freeman, for Jim Trotter, for Mort, for Adam Schefter, for Jason La Canfora. ESPECIALLY do it for Albert Breer, who has had to stake out the owners’ meetings from dawn till dusk for MONTHS. If the Lockout doesn’t end today, I am scared he will collapse from physical exhaustion. NFL and NFLPA: DO YOU WANT THAT ON YOUR CONSCIENCES?

This has gone on for long enough and I am sick and tired of being sick and tired of this. Not that I am in a position to make any threats; any ultimatum would be idle because the second sweet glorious football is back I will love every second of it but I still DEMAND THE LOCKOUT ENDS TODAY OR TOMORROW.

Kind regards,

Ryan

 

 

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July 18, 2011

NFL Sleeper: Houston Texans

As most of those who cover football both nationally and locally have been primarily talking about the NFL Lockout, which should probably end this week, there has been a noticeable dearth of actual football talk. While most training camp stories this time of year are vacuous accounts of players in the “best shape of their lives,” free agency speculation, and generally devoid of substance, I do miss the macro prognostications that we usually have started to see by this time of year.

With that said, I am going start writing about broad and specific predictions I have for the NFL season. The Lockout should be over soon and while there will be a crazy frenzy of free agency in the ensuing weeks, I do not think that it is entirely too early to make educated guesses about what will happen this season. It is my firm belief that the cores of most successful NFL franchises are built in-house and I think that right now the Houston Texans have a solid foundation to build around and will be one of those teams that we see in every NFL season make the jump from cellar dweller to contender.

To be successful in today’s NFL, the three most important things to consider are having a great quarterback, protecting the quarterback, and the ability to get to other teams’ quarterbacks. Other pieces of a team are of varying importance but the best teams have a core in the aforementioned three areas that can subsequently be built around.

In this regard, I think the Houston Texans are well-positioned to make a jump. ESPN Insider’s scouting department (subscription required) ranks Matt Schaub as tied with Matt Ryan and Carson Palmer as having been the 11th-best quarterback in football, behind (starting at #1) Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, and Tony Romo. In 2011, I would rather have Schaub as my quarterback than Favre, Eli Manning, and Flacco and would rank him equally with Romo and Ryan. This would place Schaub in a three-way tie for #7, in the first quartile of the league.

Last season, Schaub completed 63.6% of his passes, throwing for 4370 yards, 24 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. These are pretty good numbers that I predict he will at least match and probably improve upon. I get that there have been issues with Schaub in the past with “clutchness” and that he has not won any big games in his career. However, it is a logical fallacy to assume that just because a quarterback has not done so before that he will not do so in the future. Before last year, we were constantly reminded that Aaron Rodgers had never won a playoff game. He and the Packers proceeded to win four in a row.

As far as protecting the quarterback, the Texans’ tackles rank fairly well. For offensive tackles (not differentiated between left and right), ESPN Insider ranked right tackle Eric Winston tied for #9 and left tackle Duane Brown tied for #27 in 2010. I do not claim to know anything about how to evaluate offensive linemen but Houston appears to be OK in this department, having been ranked 4th in run protection and 12th in pass protection in 2010 by Football Outsiders. Elsewhere on offense, the Texans have pretty good skill players. Andre Johnson is one of, if not the best, NFL’s best wide receivers while running back Arian Foster led the NFL with 1,616 rushing yards last season.

Houston’s defensive line was ranked 17th last season against the pass by Football Outsiders. However, I would expect this ranking to go up after the Texans selected Wisconsin defensive end JJ Watt 11th overall. In evaluating Watt before the draft, some of my friends and I concluded that his sheer will and determination would make him a very good pro but that he would be great if he were picked by a team that has another elite pass rusher. Playing opposite Mario Williams on the defensive line, Watt will be a force to be reckoned with.

On top of the very tangible on-field benefits that Watt will give the Texans, he is a truly inspiring presence off the field. Consistently talking the talk and walking the walk, Watt’s credo is DBWH–Dream Big Work Hard. Considering how much I look to Watt as a role model just from rooting for him, reading about him, and following him on Twitter, I can only imagine what his tangential effects will be on his teammates in the Houston locker room. A vocal leader, Watt will lead by example to instill a selfless, winning attitude in the organization.

Watt, Williams, and the rest of the Texans defense will likely see a rise in production with new defensive coordinator Wade Philips. Although he has languished as a head coach, Philips is a brilliant defensive mind who has a track record for improving defenses in his first year. Using stats from pro-football-reference.com, I made a table showing what team defenses did the year before Philips became defensive coordinator and what they did in his first season. Please note that his first season in Dallas was as head coach.

Points Allowed Yards Allowed Turnovers forced
1985 Eagles 310 5135 32
1986 Eagles 312 5224 36
1988 Broncos 352 5471 29
1989 Broncos 226 4407 43
1994 Bills 356 5175 28
1995 Bills 335 5128 28
2001 Falcons 377 5845 30
2002 Falcons 314 5334 39
2003 Chargers 441 5593 20
2004 Chargers 313 5360 33
2006 Cowboys 350 5165 31
2007 Cowboys 325 4922 29

In his last five stops, Philips-led defenses have improved in the first year in both points and yards allowed. Turnovers forced stayed the same in Buffalo and dropped slightly in Dallas but rose significantly in Denver, Atlanta, and San Diego. Even though Houston will have less time in training camp than normal to shift from last season’s 4-3 defense to Philips’s 3-4, I predict that it experiences a similar jump.

Many NFL fans are probably tired of picking Houston as a team to make the jump. They have had lofty expectations before many seasons in the recent past which they have failed to adequately fulfill. This season will be different. I think that Houston’s ascent into the league’s upper echelon will begin this year as the team wins at least 10 games and earns a spot in the AFC Playoffs.

 

 

Please follow me on Twitter – @RGSpiegel

 



#FirstWorldProblems – Chicago Cabs

I have been many places both inside and outside of the United States where people are much less fortunate. Fully aware of how good I have it, I am still going to complain about things that I feel entitled to have better. If you want to contribute any first world problems, please contact me and I will post them, either anonymously or with credit attributed. 

Last week, Red Eye, a free daily Chicago newspaper, published an article entitled “Clash Cab” that is near and dear to the hearts of everyone who lives in this city. Even though they are required to accept major credit cards, cab drivers in this city are obscenely incredulous and rude when we try to use credit cards to pay for our fares. They moan and groan, giving you a dirty look and grumbling as if wanting to pay by credit card is something wholly unreasonable like asking if the driver would mind if you urinate inside the cab. Oftentimes, they claim that the credit card machine is broken.

While some cabs have those quick processors in the passenger sections, most taxis have machines that take forever to process the payment. You have to sit awkwardly in the back of the cab for what is probably only two minutes but feels like an eternity for that stupid processor that is probably from like 1985 to authorize the payment and print the receipt. Some taxis don’t even have this; they have to manually imprint your card and call in the payment to their company. Call me overly cautious but given that these are the same people who whine excessively when compelled to accept credit cards, I don’t exactly feel safe giving dozens of them access to an imprint of my credit card. WE DESERVE BETTER.

(Side note: It is also annoying when restaurants and bars don’t accept credit cards or have minimums. That is its own post, though).

Last weekend, I was in a cab where the driver, in principled opposition to accepting credit cards, cost himself money. I was taking a cab from a bar in Lincoln Park back to my apartment in Old Town. As I got in the taxi, I asked the driver if he accepted credit cards. Shaking his head and looking at me as if he wished I were dead, he griped about the fees his company would charge him and how long the receipt would take to print. As if those problems are my fault and I should feel bad about his plight.

“Do you have any cash?” the fat, middle-aged driver from somewhere in the Middle East (description meant to enhance visual imagery, not as a racist injunction against all people or drivers from the Middle East. That being said, my favorite drivers are the ones from Africa who have heavy accents and have heard of the musicians that my cousin manages. They are friendly and don’t complain about credit cards.) demanded of me. “Um, I have about nine dollars,” I replied meekly, pulling out my wallet to count the 1s I had received as re-payment for beer from my roommate earlier in the night. My estimate was correct. “Nine dollars will do,” the driver replied in disgust, obviously still reeling from my outrageous request to pay by credit card a minute earlier.

The fare ended up at $8.15. I paid him the nine dollars and stumbled into my apartment. Analyzing the situation later, though, I realized that this cab driver’s decision was not in his economic best interest. “Most cabdrivers are independent contractors who lease their cabs from taxi companies for a monthly rate. Drivers also pay credit card processing fees to the cab company. At Yellow Cab, drivers pay 5 percent of the fare to swipe a credit card, which is standard across the industry,” Red Eye’s Austin Smith wrote.

If I had paid by credit, I probably would have made the fare equal out to $10.00. Taking 5% out, the driver would have netted $9.50. In acting like an entitled baby, he cost himself $.50 (although there admittedly would be a slight opportunity cost in time spent waiting for the stupid machine to take forever to print).

As a citizenry, we need to collectively take action against this outrageous behavior by our cab drivers. We need to demand that all cabs have the good credit processors and that their drivers don’t try to make us feel bad for using our credit cards, which at this point should be a natural right in line with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At the very least, we should not tip when we are forced to pay in cash–HIT THEM WHERE IT HURTS. We are allegedly in a bad economy and I would have to imagine that there are any number of people in the country and world who would be willing to replace them and happily accept credit cards. WE SHOULD NOT BE DENIED THIS.

Have you had similar experiences in Chicago or other cities? Please post comments or send along detailed descriptions.

Please follow me on Twitter – @RGSpiegel


July 17, 2011

USA-Japan: Immediate Reaction

Where last week I only watched the last ten minutes of extra time of USA-Brazil in the Women’s World Cup quarterfinals, I set the finals match-up between the USA and Japan as a priority to carve my day around. Instead of going to watch the game at a soccer bar with my roommate and a few other friends, I opted to watch the game at home with Twitter, leftover pizza, and Diet Coke. (Side note: I know most people who are not on Twitter mistakenly think that its utility is primarily derived from finding out what celebrities had for lunch or that athletes just worked out. This is patently untrue: its detractors have NO idea how effectively Twitter optimizes your sports viewing experience with regards to humor, understanding, and overall enjoyment if you follow the right people).

In their resilience, grace, and class, the USA women soccer players have captivated the nation in the past couple weeks. However, these reasons were not alone in why there was such positive and extensive coverage of a women’s sport–the US women soccer players and their international counterparts demonstrated such surprisingly high levels of fundamental talent and execution that the discrepancy in watchability between women and men was far smaller than what we are accustomed to seeing in basketball.

As Chris Mortensen tweeted, the beginning of the match felt a little bit like an NFL game where one team is objectively dominant in physicality, yardage, and time of possession but not on the scoreboard. In the NFL, this may be because of odd bounces, untimely turnovers, and special teams. Today, the US women kept hitting the posts and the crossbar, suffering one excruciating near miss after another.

In sports, there is a mantra that the physically superior team or player needs to assert its dominance and convert on early opportunities. The longer that underdogs stick around, the more confidence–rational or irrational–they gain. If the right “inferior” competitors hang close for long enough, they can exorcise extreme will, take advantage of lucky breaks and opponents’ errors, and ultimately win.

Unfortunately for the US women, Japan’s team was comprised of these determined competitors. When Alex Morgan scored on another beautiful long pass from Megan Rapinoe in the 69th minute, I had a feeling that, as in many soccer contests, a 1-0 lead was insurmountable. Japan kept its poise and rebounded with an Aya Miyama goal in the 80th minute. Japan’s players were not just hanging around anymore–they had equalized.

In extra time, Abby Wambach and her magical forehead looked to seal the US’s destiny, heading a beautiful Alex Morgan pass into the goal in the 104th minute. Japan countered again, this time with a Homare Sawa goal in the 117th minute. Surely, though, with stellar goaltender Hope Solo, the US would prevail in a shootout. Until it did not.

Japan persevered, winning the shootout 3-1, consummating an improbable victory over a nation where so many more young women play soccer and a team that was decisively bigger in size. As much as I would have liked the US to win this game, Japan earned it. Its athletes took it. ”They were playing for more than just their team. They were playing for their country that has experienced so much,” disappointed but admiring US midfielder Heather O’Reilly told ESPN’s Bob Ley after the game.

In their magnificent victory, Japan’s athletes exhibited the qualities that are the reasons we watch sports. They fought and clawed every second of every minute, transcending their bodies’ inherent limitations to squeeze out every ounce of grit and determination that they possessed and then some they did not; their out of body effort exemplified the cliche “giving 110%.” Every coach of every underdog should show his/her teams tape of today’s match-up for inspiration. I will personally think about the perseverance of Japan’s squad in this game to make myself work harder through difficult situations. In the face of pressure, against all odds, I aspire to similarly ignore the possibility of failure and give it everything I’ve got. I think the lessons that were reinforced to me today were more valuable in the long run than the fleeting happiness I would have had in seeing our country win.

The US did not play poorly. Alex Morgan tweeted, “I am a little heart broken. But we left it all on the field, and I am proud of this team.” The US women have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. They represented their country with grace and class. Although they did not come out of this game with a win, they are not losers. Japan won.

Situational variance is something that prognosticators often fail to account for when they make assured, confident predictions of who will win games. The US women might have beaten Japan’s in nine games out of 10 but today was that one exception. One in ten is a much more significant chance than it is typically given credit for. Today, Japan’s team took advantage of luck and made its own. That’s why they play the games.

Please follow me on Twitter – @RGSpiegel


July 12, 2011

Fair and Balanced Jeter Reflection

Growing up, I was a gigantic Yankees fan. I watched the first several innings of every game on MSG and would fall asleep every night in the summer listening to John Sterling and Michael Kay call the games on WABC. By age 8, I had read two Mickey Mantle biographies and was firmly entrenched in the team’s history. While I have since drifted away from following the organization and the sport, there is a special place in my heart for the late-90s Yankees. Obviously, Derek Jeter’s great performances fall right in the middle of all these memories.

Batting .314 as a rookie in 1996, Jeter was immediately a formidable force and was destined to be a stalwart in pinstripes as I transitioned from a child to an adolescent to an adult. He batted .361 and scored 12 runs in the 1996 playoffs as the Yankees won their first World Series since 1978.

Solid in the regular season, Jeter always seemed to raise his game in the playoffs. From the infamous Jeffrey Maier home run in 1996 to his famous flip play and Mr. November home run in 2001 with countless clutch performances both in between and after, Jeter undeniably had a flair for the dramatic. Reaching 3,000 hits this past Saturday was a significant milestone in a truly great career. That Jeter hustles out every ground ball with fervent urgency and is seemingly unflappable only serves to enhance his legacy.

While Jeter was the young, dynamic, quintessential Yankee, he was not my favorite player on those great Yankee teams. I always preferred David Cone, David Wells, and Paul O’Neill because their emotions and energy seemed so much more human. Although Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte were calm and understated, their mannerisms and personalities seemed much more genuine. Far from not liking him, I just never really loved Jeter in the unconditional way that 10-year olds love their first favorite athletes.

As we have become tired of fawning sportswriters and commentators overrating Jeter’s intangibles to such a nauseating degree and he has won one undeserved gold glove after another, Jeter has quite possibly fallen into the class of being so overrated by the media that he is underrated by the general public. In yesterday’s Grantland column, Jonah Keri, a balanced and thoughtful authority on baseball and its history, wrote, “On the day he retires, he’ll go down as one of the greatest players ever to play the game, perhaps the third-best shortstop.” Because we have become so accustomed to filtering out the hyperbole when it comes to the media’s lusting over coverage of Jeter, it is easy to forget that his on-field accomplishments objectively qualify him to be considered in the pantheon of the all-time greats.

That Jeter has perpetually gone out of his way to avoid ever saying anything interesting or of substance leads me to believe that for his whole career he has made calculated attempt to optimize positive coverage of him. This approach has quite clearly worked. Writing and speaking about the character that Jeter has cultivated is much easier than approaching him critically. Portraying him as a figure whose effort, personality, and achievements are beyond reproach fits the mythological narrative that cause those who cover sports to paint our athletes as role models that children should aspire to become.

As such, many of Jeter’s lapses as a teammate–of which we are supposed to believe that he is the ultimate–have been largely forgotten. In 1999, he fraternized and was seen laughing with Alex Rodriguez, then a Seattle Mariner, during a bench-clearing brawl. Teammate Chad Curtis, whom Jeter had had other run-ins with, took exception to this. When Rodriguez became a Yankee, he was relegated to third base even though he was a better-fielding shortstop than Jeter. If Jeter saw himself in a realistic light and truly cared about the Yankees’ winning above all else, he would have volunteered to play a different position.

Over the course of A-Rod’s tenure with the Yankees, it has been clear to neutral observers that Jeter still holds a grudge stemming from A-Rod’s infamous comments to GQ  in 2000 that Jeter “never had to lead.” As Rodriguez struggled in pinstripes, Jeter passive aggressively opted not come to his defense as he had before done for Jason Giambi. Rodriguez has famously thrived under circumstances where he felt less pressure. Where Jeter could have eased Rodriguez’s transition to the Bronx, he instead chose to harbor personal resentment which may or may not have come at the expense of team success.

This past offseason, Jeter made a concerted attempt to use the media to curry public favor for him to be paid significantly above market value based on past performance. Even after getting paid vastly more than any other team would offer and, beyond that, what his projected future performance would be worth, Jeter insinuated that he felt insulted and betrayed by the negotiations process which he and his agent had just objectively dominated. Moreover, if the Yankees had not shown time and again that they essentially have a license to print money, I would argue that, in demanding to be so grossly overpaid, Jeter once again hurt his team’s chances of victory in pursuit of personal vanity in constricting the team’s budget to sign other players.

The purpose of bringing these examples to light is not to discredit Jeter’s prodigious achievements; it is to present a balanced portrayal of a legendary player whose personal flaws have been both greater and more overt than we are led to believe by many who cover baseball. Like most great professional athletes, I believe that Jeter has aspired to greatness not just by natural talent but by a narcissistic gene which relentlessly drives him to achieve. I do not believe that there is necessarily anything wrong with this but it is offensive when those who are supposed to be unbiased willfully ignore eminently available evidence in favor perpetuating an incomplete narrative.

 

 

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July 11, 2011

Sports Karma is Awesome

Before starting this column, I have a confession to make: I definitely did not watch the whole USA-Brazil women’s World Cup game yesterday. Because of Twitter, I knew the game was on but instead opted to eat at Buddy’s Pizza in Detroit. I don’t have many rules in life but one of them is that if I am in a city with a pizza restaurant that Adam Richman ranked in the top 25 in the United States, I eat at said pizza restaurant. I regret nothing, especially because as my Twitter feed was blowing up when I returned from my delicious lunch, I saw that there were about ten minutes left in the game, the US was down 2-1, and there was no time like the present to be a bandwagon patriot.

As I did not watch the entire game (or even a majority of it), I will not pretend to profess what this victory means for the popularity of soccer in America, women’s sports in general, or what any of the other ramifications of such a thrilling victory are. I will instead focus on the ten minutes or so that I saw and how I don’t think I have ever seen sports karma manifest itself so quickly.

As you probably saw or at the very least know by now, the US was down 2-1, the final minutes were ticking down, and defeat seemed inevitable. In the 115th minute, a Brazilian player went down and “needed to be removed on a stretcher.” As soon as she was taken off, she magically hopped off the stretcher and started jogging. Not that I have watched all that much soccer in my life but this was by far the most blatant fake injury I have ever seen in my illustrious career of watching sports.

Because I do not know that much about soccer, I need this explained to me. Time spent dealing with these injuries, I think, gets added into the stoppage time at the end of the period. If this is the case, though, doesn’t it mean that no real advantage was gained by this farcical injury faking? But if no advantage is gained, why bother going through this ridiculous charade and embarrassing yourself, your team, and your country on such a conspicuous world stage? Also, why not fake the injury long enough so that it isn’t abundantly clear what you just did? She could have at least hobbled off as they were bringing the stretcher out and still milked the same amount of time. I get that a minor advantage could be gained by breaking up the flow and momentum of the game but I feel that this would be mitigated by giving the gassed US players a chance to rest their legs and catch their breaths.

Whatever its purpose, this absurd display of histrionics immediately transformed me from a passive observer to an ardent, if bandwagon, US women’s soccer hooligan. Fanhood is completely revolutionized when there is a verifiable villain to root against and for the foreseeable future Brazil would fit this bill. Given the jolt to my relative dormancy, I can only imagine how the US players felt as they were being so brazenly disrespected on a world stage.

We can never know if the US would have scored a goal in the final five minutes had their momentum not been broken by the fake injury, but we do know that all of a sudden a flip switched. The team had an unspoken but collective “There is no effing way we are losing this game now” morale boost and returned from the brief respite on a tear. In stoppage time, Megan Rapinoe charged up the field and somehow, some way, executed a perfect cross field pass between two Brazilian defenders and over the goalie to Abby Wombach who headed it into the goal.

Behind precision penalty shots and impeccable goalie play from impending pop culture superstar Hope Solo, the US team prevailed in the shootout to advance to the semi-finals. Skipping the inevitable platitudes about “never giving up,” I must ask whether anyone can recall a time where sports karma happened so quickly. Wambach’s goal literally came within five minutes of the Brazilian player Erika’s springing off of the stretcher and jogging along the sidelines.

Sports karma is not a given. Auburn, which almost certainly cheated to land Cam Newton but did so effectively enough that the cash has not yet been traced, won the 2010-2011 NCAA Football BCS championship over Oregon, a team which also almost certainly cheated, albeit not well enough to evade the NCAA’s (er, Yahoo!’s) enforcement agency of Dan Wetzel and Charles Robinson. TCU, meanwhile, did not show any signs of cheating, went undefeated in the regular season, convincingly beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, and did not even have a chance to compete for a national title. Even if Auburn and Oregon’s seasons end up being vacated (and it is not like the NCAA enforcers are the Men in Black and can erase our memories), TCU’s perfect season will be nothing more than a footnote. Sports, like life, can be unjust and stay that way.

When sports karma does happen, it can take a painfully long time. Roger Clemens can lie and cheat for the better part of a decade, earn multiple Cy Young awards, and win two World Series before being taken down publicly in court. Frank McCourt can “buy the Dodgers on the Dodgers’ credit card” and use the historic franchise as a cash cow to fund his and his family’s profligate lifestyle for years before any action is taken. Even as the Dallas Mavericks carried out justice in defeating the Miami Heat, we had to endure the possibility of LeBron and the Heat as champions for an entire season until they were not.

Given that it does not always happen and when it does the wait can seem interminable, we must revel in the fact that we objectively saw karma take place within five minutes yesterday. In defeating Brazil, the US Women’s soccer team demonstrated poise and grit in its collective snap into “Eff you” mode that will forever be remembered. In doing so, it set a sports karma speed record that I don’t think will ever be broken in my lifetime.

 

 

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July 7, 2011

Why Athletes Are Tame

In his Daily Beast column yesterday, Buzz Bissinger laments the lack of colorful heroes in sports. The first problem, Bissinger notes, is that it is impossible to get access to professional athletes because their agents obstruct communication:

“Getting to sports figures is like cutting through cords of prison barbed wire. And given the wishy-washy personality mush of gray pudding that is the athlete today, all of them sounding the same with those soporific, somnolent sound bites, I am not sure the effort of getting their cooperation is even worth it.”

Bissinger later goes on to show that going through the effort of getting their communication is decisively not worth it, griping about the lack of heart and conviction that goes into athletes’ generic answers to interview questions:

“[There are] no men and women who speak with conviction, or are willing to take a stand regardless of risk, or are just delightfully funky and insane. Athletes do occasionally post interesting and provocative tweets on Twitter, only to immediately retract them by claiming post-traumatic Twitter syndrome once there is the slightest whiff of controversy.”

In stating that there are NO men and women who fit these criteria consistently, Bissinger is incorrect. In fact, Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens, and Ron Artest (um, I mean Metta World Peace), to name a few, are squarely against the grain in these regards and are also heavily criticized in the media for their sincerity and/or insanity.

The athletes who Bissinger nostalgically remembers and says are nonexistent now, such as Yogi Berra, Muhammad Ali, Joe Namath, and Jim Brown, played in a diametrically different fan and media landscape. They were covered by daily newspapers and occasionally on television. Those who covered these athletes generally exercised discretion and personal lives were seen as off limits. If an athlete said something controversial, there was only so much traction the quote could gain. Now there are millions of blogs which dissect every word, SportsCenter runs approximately 78 times a day, there is local and national sports talk radio which has untold amounts of airtime to fill, and sportswriters yell at each other every day on TV.

None of those athletes ever had to face the onslaught of scrutiny and coverage that LeBron James had to deal with for The Decision. Saying, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” of course pales in comparison to outlandish or provocative statements Jim Brown or Muhammad Ali made throughout their careers. Ali faced public backlash for refusing to participate in the military draft but can you imagine how much a similar action by a prominent athlete would be dissected today? Would Joe Namath have been such a fabled carouser if his drinking pictures ended up on Deadspin like Matt Leinart’s as Us Weekly and TMZ battled daily for more?

It is not just athletes who speak in platitudes and refuse to give writers access to their genuine thoughts and emotions. Everybody who is covered by the voracious 24/7 media does this. Coaches, politicians, celebrities, and businessmen do the exact same thing. A few years ago, I went to an analysts’ meeting at a major insurance company with my father. As my dad asked genuine questions in trying to determine whether the company’s stock was worth investing in, the CEO dodged and diverted the questions just as a football coach would have done, answering every question with some variation of “Both teams played hard,” doing a poor job of concealing his annoyance with having to go through these motions.

As Bissinger briefly alluded to, Twitter is now really the only place to get access to genuine human emotion of the athletes who are normally so guarded and indifferent. Fooled too many times into incurring negative backlash from having their quotes taken out of context and perceived negatively, athletes have taken to cutting out the middleman. Sportswriters who were once a necessary intermediary between athletes and the public have been marginalized by the same media environment that has caused athletes to bite their tongues.

Even with the barrage of new media, it is not a brand new development that athletes do not take stands. In my opinion, the trend started during the dramatic rise in endorsement contracts that coincided with the growth of Nike and ESPN. It has therefore been happening for at least the past 20 years. As Michael Jordan famously said when asked to support African American Democrat Harvey Gantt in a North Carolina Senate race, “Republicans buy sneakers too.”

While it is disconcerting to see athletes regress to sheer nothingness in their public statements, I really cannot say I blame them. There does not seem to be too much upside in engaging the media and public honestly and sincerely. In fact, as described above with Artest, Ochocinco, and T.O., there appears to be quite a bit of downside to staying true to yourself.

 

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