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November 29, 2011

Tuesday Trends

These are my weekly thoughts summing up what is going on around the NFL.

1. The Texans and Bears are in precarious situations.

In related news, water is wet.

Both of these teams have great defenses and running games, which is enough to beat a majority of the teams in the NFL, but not enough to win in the playoffs with massive quarterback deficiencies. Houston has an easier route to the playoffs but the Bears also still have a pretty good shot to get there.

Bears fans are hoping and praying right now that Cutler recovers from his broken thumb as soon as possible. Caleb Hanie looked uncomfortable in the pocket in the Bears’ Sunday loss to the Raiders while Texans back-up Matt Leinart went out for the season with a broken collarbone.

Leinart was replaced by TJ Yates, a rookie who Houston drafted in the fifth round out of North Carolina. The Texans have signed Kellen Clemens and worked out Jake Delhomme and Jeff Garcia, none of whom will inspire confidence amongst the fan base other than, “I am confident that they are bad.”

Peter King made an interesting point in yesterday’s MMQB that the NFL trade deadline should be later than Week 6:

Goodell sounds as if he wants the trade deadline moved, which is a good thing. I did my NFL podcast last week with Roger Goodell, and the most interesting thing I heard was that he’s open to pushing the trade deadline back. It currently is the day after the end of Week 6, roughly one-third of the way into the season … way sooner than baseball’s trade deadline, which occurs two-thirds of the way into the season.

My biggest problem with the deadline was perfectly illustrated by what happened with Kyle Orton last week. The Broncos cut him, getting nothing in return when at last one team — Chicago — and maybe Kansas City, Houston and Dallas would have traded a draft choice for him. Kansas City’s thrilled to get him for nothing except his salary the rest of the year, but Denver’s out of luck because they get nothing when they certainly would have gotten a fifth-round pick, minimum, had the trade deadline been after Week 12.

A later trade deadline would allow winning teams with injuries not to have their entire season compromised while losing teams could build up assets for the future. What would the argument AGAINST a later trade deadline be?

2. The AFC West is the most compelling divisional battle.

Really, this is just an excuse to write about Tim Tebow, who continues to ride his magic unicorn to late Broncos victories. In all seriousness, though, it actually isn’t that nonsensical that the Broncos continue to win with this formula. They control the clock and pick up first downs with a formidable running attack, generate relentless pass rush with Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil that fuels the entire defense, keep games close, and rely on Tebow to make plays late after the opposing defense has worn down from defending the run the whole game. Yes, some most of Tebow’s passes miss his receivers by a comically large margin. However, his errant throws don’t get intercepted–he only has one pick in 143 pass attempts this season. There is a legitimate method as to why the Broncos keep winning with this formula.

Meanwhile, the Raiders are also incredibly interesting. Gun to my head, I’d say that Hue Jackson actually made a sound decision in trading two first round picks for Carson Palmer. This is cliche but if you had told me on the day of the trade that I would think that right now I never would have believed you. With Darren McFadden likely back this week, the Raiders aren’t going to make it easy for the Broncos to catch them. Here are the two teams’ remaining schedules:

Raiders: @Dolphins, @Packers, Lions, @Chiefs, Chargers

Broncos: @Vikings, Bears, Patriots, @Bills, Chiefs

The Raiders have a slightly more difficult schedule–the Dolphins might be the best 3-8 team in NFL history, the Packers haven’t lost in like a year, and Suh’s suspension will probably be over when they play the Lions. A cursory glance at the Broncos’ schedule suggests that if they keep up the level of play from their last few weeks, they should go 4-1 in the final stretch. They are helped immensely by getting the Bears, without Cutler, at home.

The Wild Card is not out of the question for these two teams either; the Broncos are currently seeded 7th in the AFC–trailing the Bengals by one game–and currently hold the tiebreaker over the Titans and Jets based on win percentage in conference games.

3. The Falcons are hot right now.

They’ve won five of six, their only loss was in that stretch was in overtime against the Saints, and they have a manageable schedule the rest of the way: they play at Houston and Carolina, host Jacksonville, travel to New Orleans, then finish up at home against Tampa Bay. Houston will not have its quarterback situation figured out yet, the Panthers have no pass defense, the Jaguars just fired their coach, the Saints game will be a HUGE challenge, and the Buccaneers may very well quit on Raheem Morris by Week 17. With their schedule, it is hard to see the Falcons’ not locking up one of the NFC Wild Card spots.

4. The Lions and Giants are free falling.

I predict that we look back on the Ndamukong Suh stomping incident as the moment that sealed the Lions’ fate this season. Having lost four of their last six, the Lions still have three road games against divisional leaders–the Saints, Raiders, and Packers. They are going to be hard pressed to emerge from the NFC Wild Card scrum.

The Giants, meanwhile, now have to host the Packers on a short week after getting TROUNCED 49-24 by the Saints last night in a game that was more of a blowout than the score indicates. All is not completely lost for them because they still have two games left against the Cowboys, but, if the Giants want to salvage their season, they need to start this week. The Cowboys play the Cardinals on Sunday which should be a win. If that happens and the Giants lose to the Packers, New York will be two games back with four games left and have absolutely zero margin for error.

5. The Cowboys, meanwhile, are flying under the radar as a team that could go far in the playoffs.

In an oddly quiet manner for Jerry Jones’s franchise which usually receives an insufferable amount of hype, the Cowboys are putting together a pretty impressive run. They’ve won four in a row and, at 7-4, three of their four losses came in games where they led in the fourth quarter.

If Aaron Rodgers wasn’t having a historically great season, Tony Romo would be getting some hype as an MVP candidate–he’s completing 64.5% of his passes and has thrown for 3,026 yards, 21 touchdowns, and nine interceptions.

Of anyone in the NFC who can beat the Packers in a playoff game, the Cowboys might have the best shot after the Saints (who are the only team in the NFC that could conceive of beating the Packers in a shoot-out). When the offense is clicking they can score points in bunches, and, with Demarcus Ware, the Cowboys can get to the quarterback without having to blitz.

The Packers would probably beat the Cowboys in Green Bay eight times out of 10 but 20% probabilities are not numeric outliers. If the Cowboys play a perfect game and get some breaks–a long pass interference call, a muffed punt, and/or a devastating injury perhaps–they could find themselves with a chance to win.


November 28, 2011

Football and Me Part XIII

This is the thirteenth post in a series in which I will document this football season. It will broadly be about the Badgers and Packers but will more specifically be about myself in it. Football season does not just happen on the field. It is about great friends, foods, drinks, and merriment. My hope is that it will be interesting for readers but at the very least it will serve as a journal to look back on. I wish I had done this last year.

Times are approximate.

Thursday

11:00 AM - Seriously, how awesome is it that the Packers are playing? The four-day wait from Sunday was NOTHING!! If only the interminable wait could always be cut in half. If the players’ bodies wouldn’t regress into an injured state of nothingness, I would suggest that this be the case.

After getting beaten embarrassingly by my uncle and one of his friends in paddle tennis, my dad and I head to Bob Hyland’s Sports Page Pub in White Plains, NY to watch the first half. Bob Hyland, who we met last time we watched the first half of Packers-Lions on Thanksgiving but not this time, played center for the Packers from 1967-69 (1967 was the season the Packers won Super Bowl II) and in 1976. The pub is a pretty good general sports bar but not denominationally a Packers bar.

11:30 – The wait from 11:00 to 11:30 almost seems as long in totality as the wait from Sunday at 3:00 until 11:00 this morning. Come on…Come onnnnnnnnnnn….

Finally, it’s time for kickoff. Green Bay wins the toss, elects to defer, and the Lions choose to receive. I LOVE the move of deferring the coin toss because it allows for the possibility of two straight possessions – the last one of the first half and first of the second half. I have absolutely no idea whether or not this has any translation into winning or losing but the feeling when the Packers have the ball with three minutes to play in the 2nd quarter, knowing that they will get it again at the beginning of the 3rd, is AWESOME.

12:00 PM – The first quarter ends and the score is tied at 0-0. The Lions, though, have looked better than the Packers on both sides of the ball. At this point, the Lions have gotten eight first downs total on their two drives but have stalled just outside of field goal range while the Packers picked up two first downs on their first drive and went three-and-out on their second. While the two teams are feeling each other out, the game has a bit of a chippy feel to it. If the Packers are going to win, though, they are going to need to play much better than they did in the first quarter.

12:20 – After the teams trade punts, Ryan Pickett tips a Matthew Stafford Pass and Clay Matthews REFUSES to be denied the ball, intercepting it on the Lions 20 and going down on the 13. *Handshakes*

Three plays later, Aaron Rodgers, who has strikingly beautiful eyes, connects to Greg Jennings for a three-yard TD. 7-0 Packers.

12:40 – The awesome scenario I envisioned at the coin toss comes through; the Packers get the ball back on their own 37 with a little over a minute to go. While it doesn’t result in a score and the Lions end up getting the ball back with 30 seconds left, I still feel vindicated in my prophecy.

1:00 – At halftime, we have to scurry over to my great aunt’s country club where we are having Thanksgiving. The timing of it is not ideal and we aren’t even sure if we will get to watch the second half on TV (we know there is one in the room but in the past it has had unusable reception and we anticipate some backlash at allowing football to encroach on such a sacred family holiday). We feel a little bit like Jayme in her excellent Cheesehead TV post from Wednesday night where she detailed a relationship that ended in large part due to her insistence on watching the Packers on Thanksgiving. The Packers only play 16 times a year–20 TOPS. It’s scarce. Missing it when it happens is just not an option and anyone who disagrees is a racist. There, I said it.

The second we arrive in the room, I turn the TV on…IT WORKS!!!! And just in time for kickoff in the second half.

1:10 – Weird sequence here that has been discussed ad nauseum. But…the Packers drive inside the Lions 5-yard line, get stopped on 3rd-and-goal from the 3, and all of a sudden Donkey Kong Suh is involved in a frolic with Packers back-up guard Evan Dietrich-Smith and Suh gets a 15-yard penalty and tossed from the game. Replays show that he CLEARLY and unabashedly STOMPED on EDS. Couple quick thoughts on this because I know you are DYING for MY opinion on it:

  • This play singlehandedly turned around the tenor of this game. Before it, the Lions legitimately had a shot to win; they had stopped the Packers and would be down 10-0, a deficit that is hardly insurmountable. After it, they were down 14-0 and one of their best pass rushers. Not enough has been made about the fact that this play, which was as stupid as it was dirty, cost the Lions four points in a game where points had thus far been at a premium.
  • If this happened on a non-nationally televised game, I would guess that Suh would get a one-game suspension. It would be highlight show fodder but it wouldn’t have become the dominant news story of the day and even weekend. Instead, Suh lost his cool in a game that EVERYBODY was watching, and he is going to pay dearly for it. I would guess that a two-game suspension is coming.
  • Donkey Kong is lucky that EDS wasn’t injured on the play. Can you imagine what the backlash would have been if he broke his wrist or something? That might have broken Twitter.
  • Suh didn’t help himself–at all–with his weak non-apology after the game. It suggests that he is either mind-numbingly cynical or completely delusional. Neither is ideal and it HAS to be one or the other.
  • Looking back on it, this play WOKE UP the Packers. Read on…

1:20 – On the ensuing Lions drive, Packers back-up linebacker Robert Francois makes an OUTSTANDING diving interception. This play happened while my great aunt, who as I mentioned before was hosting Thanksgiving at her country club, was giving a very touching toast to her late husband Joe, who passed about ten years ago. I was still extremely fired up from the Suh play and I don’t know how I found the willpower not to scream YESSSSS exultantly and pump my fists. Thankfully, I was able to contain my excitement and will not be excommunicated from all forthcoming family functions. But it was a close call. Anyways, *handshakes*

1:25 – The toast had concluded and I am thankful not to have been tested again when Rodgers hit James Jones for a 65-yard touchdown on the first play of the next drive. At this time, I screamed, YESSSSS!!!!! and did a fist pump. I was given some confused looks by distant family members but not looked at as a heretic. Tough, but fair. 21-0 Packers. BEAT THEM DOWN!!!!!

1:35 – On the second play after the kickoff, Stafford throws ANOTHER interception, this one being of the Charles Woodson variety. *Handshakes,* Mason Crosby adds a field goal. At 24-0, the lead is presumed safe. Outstanding third quarter from the Packers, which saw them outscore the Lions 17-0 and assert their collective will that the kitties have a ways to come before they can hang with the big boys.

Nothing in the 4th quarter is terribly worth mentioning so here are my overall thoughts from the game:

  • It continues to be unbelievable that the Packers are seemingly unaffected when they lose starters. Middle linebacker Desmond Bishop, who is highly underrated, goes down and is replaced admirably by DJ Smith who had six tackles, at least two or three of them being impactful and in the open field. The Packers’ other middle linebacker AJ Hawk goes down and his replacement Robert Francois has an otherworldly interception. Right guard and 2010 Pro Bowl alternate Josh Sitton is dutifully replaced by Evan Dietrich-Smith. I know nothing about how to evaluate offensive linemen (except, unfortunately, when they give up sacks or get called for holding or false start penalties) but I have to imagine that if EDS got Suh fired up enough to stomp on him that he was playing effectively. The depth on the Packers is unfathomable and it doesn’t just take effect when starters go down with injuries. It fosters position battles where starters know they have to compete day in and day out or risk losing their jobs. It is a testament not only to Ted Thompson for finding these diamonds in the rough but also to the entire coaching staff for preparing the back-ups for game action.
  • The last minute touchdown by the Lions was annoying. Not that it even allowed them to cover or anything but I wanted the scoreboard to reflect the extent to which they were BEATEN DOWN.
  • Jermichael Finley’s case of the dropsies is getting increasingly worrisome but I have confidence that he will pull it together.
  • If the Packers find themselves undefeated with home field advantage through the NFC Championship Game clinched, I don’t want them to rest their starters. I want them to go for 19-0. I can see the point that the ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl and cannot imagine how heartbroken I would be if, God forbid, Aaron Rodgers went down with an injury in a game that was “meaningless.” That being said, a team wins the Super Bowl every year. As we are constantly reminded by Mercury Morris and the rest of the merry gang of champagne poppers, only the 1972 Dolphins have gone undefeated for an entire season and nobody has done it in the era of 16 games. Going 19-0 ensures immortality. I think if the Packers find themselves in this enviable position Weeks 16 and 17, they go for the wins.

Badgers game too uneventful to chronicle (I would have run out of nice things to say about Montee Ball sometime around the third bullet) but here is some miscellaneous food porn from the weekend:

1/2 BBQ Carolina Pulled Pork, 1/2 Sausage and Pepperoni at Luna Pizza in Simsbury, CT

Luna Pizza

Duck Potstickers at Ching’s Table in New Canaan, CT

Duck Potstickers at Ching's Table

November 23, 2011

Week 12 NFL Picks

Can you believe that it is already Week 12? We are dangerously approaching the Land of No Football and this weekend especially reminds us that we must Give Thanks for it every week it is generous enough to be a part of our lives. We are 11 weeks down and, including the playoffs, only have nine to go and those last two weekends only have three games combined.

After that not-so-substantive introduction, it’s time for the picks which as always are done against my buddy Asif who writes Uninformed Commentary.

Previous Records:
Ryan:
Week 11: 8-4-2
Season: 89-63-9

Asif:
Week 11: 6-6-2
Season: 82-70-7

Thursday

Green Bay (-6) @ Detroit

Ryan: Even when the Packers have off days, they find a way to win. The Lions have a bad habit of getting behind by two touchdowns early while, more often than not, they have a good habit of erasing these deficits. This could very well play out in tomorrow’s game because the Packers often get ahead and then take their foot off the pedal, letting inferior teams back in it. If the Packers were to theoretically lose a game, this would be a pretty good time for it.

Still, though, I think Green Bay comes out focused and determined for this whole game to send a message that Detroit still has a far way to come. You come at the king, you best not miss. Packers cover.

Asif: My initial instinct was to take Detroit, but then I realized that’s just silly. Green Bay covers.

Miami @ Dallas (-7)

Ryan: No respect for the Dolphins who are on a three-game win streak and would be on a five-game win streak had they not been Tebowed and blown a game late against the Giants. I’m not quite sure who wins this game but either way I think it will be close and that this line is therefore too high. Dolphins cover.

Asif: As a Giants fan, looking at Dallas’s schedule for the rest of the season (Miami, @ Arizona, NYG, @ Tampa, Philly, @ NYG) is very upsetting. I just have to take solace in my deeply held belief that Tony Romo will find a way to screw it all up for the Cowboys.

I really hope that no one in Miami has tricked themselves into believing that Matt Moore is a QB worth starting next season. Dallas covers.

San Francisco @ Baltimore (-3)

Ryan: The 49ers given me every reason to have confidence in them this season while the Ravens have given me lots of reasons not to. The 49ers are still flying under the radar a little bit as a truly elite team. They may be peaking too early but the fact remains that they win–and cover–like every week. I’m going to keep picking that to happen until it doesn’t. 49ers cover.

Asif: I see no reason why the Ravens should be favored in this game considering that they aren’t coming off a loss or playing the Steelers. I realize that San Francisco is traveling cross-country on a short week, but the Niners are better than the Ravens even when Baltimore is trying, which is only 40% of the time. Also, Alex Smith is better than Joe Flacco. Looking back at that paragraph makes me feel like I’ve been huffing paint. San Fran covers.

Sunday:

Arizona @ St. Louis (-3)

Ryan: Via the rule of blindly picking the home team in NFC West match-ups that don’t feature the 49ers, Rams cover.

Asif: Derp bowl. Rams cover, or whatever, I don’t really care.

On a significantly more interesting note, has anyone seen the Kohl’s Black Friday commercials that feature a version of Rebecca Black’s “Friday?” This would be fairly meta if it wasn’t so intensely idiotic (Black, Friday, am I the only one who thinks about these things?). “Friday,” was a funny, if insanely annoying internet footnote five months ago and it’s the best marketing plan you could come up with Kohl’s? REALLY?

Buffalo @ NY Jets (-8)

Ryan: The Bills have been an in utter tailspin for the past three weeks; they’ve been outscored 106-26 and have looked like anything but the team that started 5-2 with wins over the Patriots and Eagles.

The Jets are the latest victims of the Tebow revolution. For some reason they couldn’t stop it at the end even though Rex Ryan wrote a book on defense that featured a 20-page chapter about how to stop the option play. Mike Mayock and Brad Nessler–who are by far the best announcing team in the NFL and second in professional sports behind Marv Albert and Steve Kerr–may or may not have mentioned that during last week’s telecast.

I think the Jets win but Bills cover in this one.

Asif: So you’re saying giving Ryan Fitzpatrick $24MM guaranteed based on half a season of greatness was a bad idea? At least Gregg Easterbrook will never be able to complain about the cheapness of the Bills again. And anytime, Easterbrook is silenced we should all give thanks. Thanksgiving picks, I get them. Oh and also, Mark Sanchez is TERRIBLE. Bills cover.

Cleveland @ Cincinnati (-7.5)

Ryan: One of my favorite things this season has been the petition for Andy Dalton to dye black stripes in his hair so his head resembles the Bengals helmet. How AWESOME would that be?! Not that he has acknowledged it in any way but I am rooting for the Bengals to make the playoffs just in case that would be the occasion where it happened.

The Bengals’ only home losses have come against the 49ers and Steelers, two of perhaps the five best teams in the NFL. After throwing three interceptions in last week’s loss, some wondered if Andy Dalton was exposed by the Ravens defense. For now, I’m going to say that’s not the case because it’s not like the Browns have the personnel to replicate Baltimore’s success. I’m riding the red rocket for another week. Bengals cover.

Asif: The Browns suck. Cincy covers.

Houston (-3) @ Jacksonville

Ryan: What would this line have been if Matt Schaub was starting instead of Matt Leinart? 10? I was fortunate enough not to see any of the game but the Jaguars lost to the Browns last week. And here I was thinking that the Jags were a good bad team.

The Jaguars have an average rush defense, giving up 111.2 yards per game on the ground this year while the Texans are second in the league with 158.1 rushing yards per game. We are going to see a steady dose of Arian Foster and Ben Tate as Leinart becomes integrated into the offense. Meanwhile, the Texans lead the league in total defense (269.7 ypg) while the Jaguars rank LAST in total offense (249.5 ypg). Even if Leinart sucks, which I’m not yet willing to concede, he can’t be any worse than Blaine Gabbert. Texans cover.

Asif: The AFC South is just like the AFC West, except all the teams are in bland cities that I don’t want to visit because they’re filled with fat people. Here are the AFC South cities: Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Nashville, and Houston. It’s like they designed a division for the single purpose of inspiring me to make a dismissive wanking motion. At least in Oakland, you might get stabbed, or beaten by the police. EXCITING! Also, I wish I had Blaine Gabbert’s hair. Houston covers.

Carolina (-3.5) @ Indianapolis

Ryan: The Colts have lost their last five games 164-44. Picking against them every week in that stretch has been extremely productive for my record. Once again, they should be getting a touchdown against every team in this league with the possible exception of the Rams. Panthers cover.

Asif: I wish this game was next year so we could see Andrew Luck face off against the team that would have drafted him had he entered the 2011 draft (yes, Luck would have been drafted over Cam Newton and there wouldn’t have been much debate about it either). The fact that the Colts have almost certainly won the Suck for Luck sweepstakes is pretty depressing for those of us who don’t like openly watching a fan base of over-privileged fatsos openly root for their team to tank a season. Sadly, the world is a terrible, unfair place that is filled with pain. Pain which we will all have to endure as Colts fans casually toss their fetus-faced messiah (Peyton Manning) aside for the newer, younger model, continuing to be obnoxious as all hell. Just stay in school, Andrew, we’re all begging you. Panthers cover.

Tampa Bay @ Tennessee (-3)

Ryan: According to Bill Barnwell, the Bucs have had a historically difficult schedule for the past six games. I feel like they are a little bit undervalued right now. They aren’t going to make the playoffs, but they sure can mess it up for opponents who could, starting with the Titans this week. Buccaneers cover.

Asif: Remember when everyone was all like, “Whoa the Titans are totally gonna catch the Texans now!” for a couple weeks when Mario Williams and Andre Johnson got hurt, and then how we totally did the same thing all over about three weeks later when Matt Schaub got hurt?

Ryan: Was that everyone or just you? It certainly wasn’t everyone who writes this column…

Asif: And then the Titans lost some games and we were all, “OH, that’s right… the Titans are the definition of NFL mediocrity and we all need to stop being so silly…”? That was fun.

By the way, the Bucs are just as bland and mediocre as the Titans, so get ready for the Tennessee hype machine to go back in full effect this week after the Titans cover. Just keep this in mind four weeks from now when the Titans are mathematically eliminated and cameras catch Chris Johnson burning $100 bills while eating a ham sandwich on the sidelines.

Minnesota @ Atlanta (-9.5)

Ryan: The word is that Adrian Peterson is OUT. The Vikings are wasting his prime and may have been wise to follow the Football Outsiders advice and trade him for a huge bounty prior to the season. My friend Craig, a not-quite-die-hard Vikings fan, vehemently disagreed but he’s wrong.

Atlanta has won four of five and its only loss in that time was in overtime to New Orleans. Falcons cover.

Asif: I don’t understand why teams make moves like the Leslie Frazier hiring. I realize that the Vikings played much better last year once Frazier replaced Brad Childress, but an iguana would have been an improvement over Chilly. There was nothing in Frazier’s past that would indicate he would be an above-average NFL head coach. You can’t tell me the Vikings wouldn’t have been better off bringing in a fresher face or at least someone who wouldn’t punt on fourth down with a little over two minutes left and a chance to tie the game. By making Frazier their coach, the Vikings made a knee-jerk reaction to a small, unrepresentative sample and now they’re paying the price for it. Of course this is the same team that thought Donovan McNabb could be a competent starting QB so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Falcons cover.

Chicago @ Oakland (-4.5)

Ryan: This one is pretty hard to pick. My gut feeling right now is that the Bears, even sans Cutler, are a little better than people think and that the Raiders are a little worse than people think. Carson Palmer and the Raiders looked pretty good the last two weeks but it isn’t as if they were playing elite teams–they beat the Chargers and the Vikings. Bears cover.

Asif: It’s Caleb Hanie time! How ya feelin’ Chicago! Has there ever been a worse name for a QB than Caleb Hanie? It just inspires zero confidence, for some reason I think of diapers. Sorry, I don’t mean to rub it in, but it has to suck to be a Bear’s fan right now. Hey, at least Matt Forte is good. Oakland covers.

Washington @ Seattle (-4)

Ryan: I got burned in my pick-blindly-against-Washington-for-the-rest-of-the-season strategy last week when they lost but covered but I’m not letting a one-game sample size get me off that track. Seahawks cover.

Asif: How have the people of the DC beltway not gotten together and collectively run Graham Gano out of town by now? It seems to me like that dude misses a minimum of four critical field goals per year…. Don’t get me wrong, Redskins FAIL is an endless source of mirth for me, but at some point it just gets kinda sad…so sad that I have no Tarvaris Jackson joke this week. Seattle covers.

New England (-4) @ Philadelphia

Ryan: Not sure if Vick plays or not and not sure how much of a difference that would make for this line or his team, which is not the most glowing of endorsements for how he has played this season. The Eagles have joined the Ravens and Giants in the most enigmatic enigmas category. They can legitimately beat or lose to anybody (well, maybe not the Colts…).

The much-maligned Patriots defense only gave up 19 points over the last two weeks but they were playing the Jets and Chiefs who have anemic offenses. This week will be a real litmus test to see if this patchwork group has actually come together just in time for the big push.

The Patriots can probably drop this one and still get a first round bye. Eagles cover.

Asif: This line should be way higher. New England’s defense has been getting better and they don’t have to worry about Vince Young lighting up their secondary. He’s played his one good game for the year, now he’ll go back to being fat and useless. Maybe he’ll even get into a fight at a strip club again. That was fun. Patriots cover.

Denver @ San Diego (-4.5)

Ryan: I’ve seen enough out of this Chargers team to conclude that they just aren’t any good and that they still get an extra 1-3 points per game on the spread because of past reputation. Their offensive line is injured and ineffective which means that Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil will wreak havoc. Meanwhile, their defensive line gets bullied every week too so for a third straight week, the Broncos’ stupid option offense will actually work. Broncos cover.

Asif: There’s only room for one overly pious nutbag QB in this here division. You just know that it pisses Philip Rivers off to no end that the media constantly fellates Tim Tebow, while he, Philip, Defender of Abstinence and Not Using Swear Words, is regarded as a moronic heel. Tebowmania has to end sometime, might as well be this Sunday, in San Diego, which is a godless land, part of Not Real America. Chargers cover.

Pittsburgh (-10.5) @ Kansas City

Ryan: Pittsburgh only had two weeks to prepare for Tyler Palko. Will that be enough? Yep. Steelers cover.

Asif: Uhhhh yeah, this line could not be high enough for me. Tyler Palko threw three picks against the Pats last week, and NE has no pass rush. Can you imagine how he’s going to play with James Harrison bearing down on him? Or Troy Polamalu coming on a blitz? Steelers cover.

Monday:

NY Giants @ New Orleans (-7)

Ryan: For the rest of the season, I am picking the Giants to do whatever the opposite is of what they did the week before. Whether the Giants end up winning or losing this game, the line is too high. Giants cover.

Asif: I am terrified of what the Saints might do to the Giants secondary in this game. That said, NY has been playing a ton of close games and Eli Manning should be able to throw the ball in the dome against a weak New Orleans secondary. Giants cover.


November 22, 2011

Tuesday Trends

After another wonderful week in the NFL, we are at the point where the season is taking shape. We are starting to see some real separation between playoff contenders and teams that are just about ready to start preparing for the draft. Here are my five most important takeaways from Week 11.

1. The Chargers’ window of opportunity is likely shut.

Every year, the Chargers have a rough start in September and October and every year we wonder if perhaps they have dug themselves too deep a hole this time to rebound and make the playoffs. Well, that year was last year when they finished 9-7 and the Chiefs won the division at 10-6.

Philip Rivers took over as starting quarterback for San Diego in 2006. We are going to look back on the 2006-2009 Chargers, who went 46-18 in the regular season in that stretch, and wonder how in the world they only won three playoff games with those immensely talented rosters.

Now, though, the 4-6 Chargers are on the cusp of missing the playoffs for the second straight season. They’ve been riddled by injuries but good teams find a way to plug those holes–last year the Packers sent 15 players to Injured Reserve–and the Chargers have lacked the depth to do so.

Sunday’s loss to the Bears put the Chargers two games behind the Raiders and one game behind the Broncos with six games left to play. If, as is most likely, they don’t make the playoffs this season, it will almost certainly cost Norv Turner his job and the organization should think long and hard about sending general manager AJ Smith, who failed to build this roster with adequate depth and has infuriated some of his team’s best players in bitter contract negotiations, packing with him.

2. The AFC is crowded at the top

The Patriots, Ravens, Steelers, and Texans are in a four-way tie atop the AFC at 7-3. Out of the four, the Patriots and Ravens have the inside track–for the AFC North tiebreaker, the Ravens have beaten the Steelers twice while the Texans will have to transition from Matt Schaub to Matt Leinart.

For quick reference, though, here are the four teams’ remaining schedules:

  • Patriots: @Eagles, Colts, @Redskins, @Broncos, Dolphins, Bills
  • Ravens: 49ers, @Browns, Colts, @Chargers, Browns, @Bengals
  • Texans: @Jaguars, Falcons, @Bengals, Panthers, @Colts, Titans
  • Steelers: @Chiefs, Bengals, Browns, @49ers, Rams, @Browns

None of these schedules are particularly difficult so it is reasonable to assume that these four teams will ultimately be seeded 1, 2, 3, and 5 (the AFC West winner, which right now looks like it will be the Raiders or Broncos, will be seeded 4). At 6-4, the Raiders might be able to pass the Texans. There is a huge difference between being ranked 3 and 4 in the AFC this year because the 4th seed will have to play the Ravens or Steelers, both of whom are substantially better right now than all of the AFC Wild Card contenders (in descending order by current ranking: Bengals, Broncos, Titans, Jets Bills).

3. Tied at 6-4 atop the NFC East, the Cowboys and Giants still get to play each other twice.

Currently, the Cowboys have won three in a row while the Giants have lost two straight. Both of these teams have incredibly high variance for how the rest of the season could go; either could conceivably miss the playoffs or win the Super Bowl.

The Cowboys could quite easily be 8-2 had they not self-destructed in fourth quarter collapses to the Jets and and Lions (although by the same token they benefitted from a fourth quarter comeback to hand the 49ers their only loss of the season). If you separate out their blowout at the hands of the bi-polar Eagles, the Cowboys lost their other three games by a combined 11 points.

The Giants have a hellacious schedule the rest of the way. In addition to playing the Cowboys twice, they must play the Saints, Packers, and Jets. Their only respite the rest of the way is a home game against the Redskins. I think that if the Giants are going to win this race, they need to beat the Cowboys twice.

4. Is this Carson Palmer renaissance to be believed?

Carson Palmer has once again looked like an elite quarterback in his past two starts, road wins against the Chargers and Vikings. In those games he was 31-43 for 363 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. It is one thing to ascribe this success to his learning of the Raiders offense but his arm strength has appeared to be better than it’s been in years. He’s making throws that only Rodgers, Brees, Brady, Roethlisberger, and Cutler can make. Maybe this wasn’t the most egregious trade in the history of ever?

Obviously, two games isn’t enough to declare that Palmer is back to old form on a sustainable basis but the only other times I’ve seen a quarterback go from great to awful to great like this were Kurt Warner and Brett Favre (Favre had an AWFUL second half of his Jets season before playing in 1995-1997 form in his first year with the Vikings).

Is it wrong to question if he might have had, um, extra help? From watching how hard the NFLPA is digging its heals for HGH testing implementation, don’t we have to view situations like this one with at least some degree of suspicion? I want to be clear that I’m not saying that Palmer unequivocally took performance enhancing drugs to return to form. But I’m saying there’s a chance.

5. Cam Newton has greater upside but Andy Dalton is better right now.

Newton has a slightly higher completion percentage (60.0-59.3%), more yards passing (2885-2239), and is obviously a much more formidable runner but Dalton has more touchdown passes (15-12), less interceptions (12-14), and a better record by four games.

Currently, Newton has a little bit of late-era Brett Favre in him where he gets frustrated when the team is behind and tries to muscle throws into tight coverage, often resulting in head-scratching interceptions. His talent level is vastly superior to Dalton’s but Dalton is more calm and collected and I would trust him much more right now with the game on the line.

If Newton becomes more patient, though, without compromising his ability to make throws that few others on the planet (really just Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, and this bizarro version of Carson Palmer) possess the arm strength to complete, he has a chance to be perhaps the best quarterback in the league. We have never seen someone a quarterback with the size, speed, and strength of Newton and I can’t wait to see if he develops into one of the best of all-time.


November 21, 2011

Football and Me Part XII

This is the twelfth post in a series in which I will document this football season. It will broadly be about the Badgers and Packers but will more specifically be about myself in it. Football season does not just happen on the field. It is about great friends, foods, drinks, and merriment. My hope is that it will be interesting for readers but at the very least it will serve as a journal to look back on. I wish I had done this last year.

Times are approximate…

Friday

8:00 PM – I meet up with Habib and Mario at Buffalo Joe’s in Evanston. Wings + cheddar fries + grape soda. The fried chicken/grape soda pairing is DELICIOUS–I highly recommend it. Buffalo Joe’s is outstanding; their wings–quite possibly the best I’ve ever had–are pretty small but they give you like 15 of them in a single portion so it evens out to be pretty good value. I feel like I could eat at least 50 of them, and, possibly 100 if I worked out and, um, took performance enhancers before the meal.

Buffalo Joe's

Saturday

6:30 AM – After having a weird dream that I quit everything to start a sustainable farm with ethically raised animals because “that s— is the future,” I am awoken for our business trip to Champaign for Wisconsin-Illinois. It’s been awhile since I had to get up that early for anything but my body handled it pretty well.

6:50 – We stop at Dunkin Donuts. This is a weird, vegetarian Dunkin Donuts so my wake-up wrap has veggie bacon in it which, after weirding out my sensibilities, ended up being shockingly decent. What wasn’t shockingly decent, though, was spilling half my hot chocolate all over my pants and absolutely scalding my inner thighs and, um, above.

9:30 – We arrive in Champaign and it feels sort of like a ghost town, not one that is hosting a big football game in 90 minutes. There is nothing quite like spending five minutes in Champaign to make one appreciate having gone to a school with a beautiful and vibrant campus like Wisconsin. The people overall were VERY nice but, man, its campus ranks FAR behind (in ascending order) Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Indiana, and Wisconsin of places where I would want to spend any time, let alone four years. We eventually meet up with Greg and three of his friends at a moderately-sized Wisconsin tailgate.

10:30 – Meet Tim. Tim is a resident of Bloomington, IL who arrived at the spot where he is now standing at 5 am to start slow cooking beef brisket on his enormous smoker. He is also smoking up some spare ribs, rib tips, and Italian sausage. The man is an artist. We try some of the rib tips and it was enough to make us resolve to put $5.00 a week each into a joint savings account where we buy a smoker at the end. We are good at tailgating but we want to be GREAT.

TIM

 

11:00 – Into the stadium just in time for kickoff. For a modest cost of $20 per ticket through a friend of Greg’s, we are RIGHT on the 50-yard line about 60 rows up. Perfect seats.

11:45 – Ugh. Wisconsin is now down 14-0 and struggling mightily on both sides of the ball. This trip feels like it will be a third straight to end in heartbreak. WHY DO WE GO ON THESE TRIPS, AGAIN?

12:15 PM – The Badgers get really lucky; Illinois can’t get a punt off from deep in its own territory. Two plays later, Montee Ball rushes it in for a touchdown. Illinois adds a field goal before the half and Wisconsin heads into the locker room down 17-7. Wisconsin is going to need to play A LOT better in the second half.

1:00-2:30 – And they do. The Badgers get in the end zone on three of their first four drives–a pass to Ball, a Russell Wilson naked bootleg, and a rush by Ball–and hold the Illini scoreless in the second half. In doing so, Wisconsin’s defense had three interceptions and forced one three-and-out. I would retroactively like to have been a fly in the wall for whatever was said by the coaching staff at halftime. Wisconsin wins 28-17 and has a B1G game next week at Camp Randall versus Penn State for the right to play in the Big Ten championship game in Indianpolis the next weekend.

Montee Ball finishes the game with 18 rushes for 224 yards and, as previously mentioned, three total touchdowns while Russell Wilson goes a modest 10-13 for 90 yards in the air with one TD pass and one run.

4:00 – At about 8 AM, we had stopped at a gas station/Dairy Queen combo and, in a travesty of justice, the DQ wasn’t open yet. I couldn’t shake my dip cone craving all day so we stopped at a different DQ on the way back. For seven summers as a camper and five as a counselor summer camp, we would get to leave camp and go to the village DQ once a week. As you might imagine, this brief respite from cafeteria food was absolutely outstanding. Anytime I go to DQ now, I am flooded with great memories and it may or may not taste about 200% better than it would without this nostalgia.

DQ

 

6:00 – Get back to Chicago. Mario and Habib head to Grand Victoria casino in Elgin and I abstain because I had a really bad experience there a few years ago (it’s the site of the fastest I’ve ever lost $100…I think I won one hand out of seven with a $20 table minimum) and I’m still shellshocked from a trip to the Horseshoe a few months ago such that I am still not sure if winning money at a casino is physically possible. Anyways, there’s a much higher expected value from a trip to the gym to undo some of the past 24 hours’ damage and watching USC-Oregon.

Sunday

11:30 AM – I head to The Stretch in Wrigleyville with Mario, Habib, Horvay, and Bauer. We start the day off by splitting three appetizers–chicken quesadillas, buffalo wings, and mac and cheese fritters which are deep fried mac and cheese + bacon. Quite good.

Apps @ The Stretch

 

12:00 PM – All of a sudden, it is time for a Packers game! This game came extremely quickly this week because they played on Monday Night and then again at noon. Great combination. I’m initially a little nervous that this game has let-down potential but then remember that Aaron Rodgers is a golden God who won’t let that happen.

12:20 – After forcing a Buccaneers punt, the Packers have a really weird drive. Highlighted by a James Jones drop (ugh!), they go three-and-out but on the punt, the Packers’ protection breaks down and Tim Masthay eludes the rusher and scurries for a first down. 12 plays later, BJ Raji, the affable defensive tackle who nicknamed himself THE FREEZER after a similar play last season, runs it in for a 1-yard touchdown. 7-0 Packers.

12:40 – Packers defense forces a three-and-out, Packers offense scores five plays later on a throw to tight end Tom Crabtree, who leads the Packers in enjoyable tweets. 14-0 Packers. Stress free game?

12:50 – Nope. LeGarrette Blount does his best Marshawn Lynch impression for a 54-yard touchdown run in which he broke six tackles. Not particularly inspiring.

1:10 – After the Packers are forced to punt following a drop by Jermichael Finley, the Bucs tack on a field goal and try a surprise onside kick. Luckily for the Packers, who were not prepared, the Bucs are flagged for touching the ball before it traveled 10 yards. Packers strike quickly as Aaron Rodgers hits Jordy Nelson for a touchdown on the fourth play of the drive. WHITE LIGHTNING!!!!!

1:30 – The Bucs are driving but Tramon Williams intercepts a Jaaaaaaash Freeman pass. Packers go into halftime 21-10. Not the best half of football but feels good to go into halftime with a lead.

1:35 – We order The Stretch’s ice cream sandwich, which is Vanilla ice cream and Nutella sandwiched between two chocolate chip waffles, topped with hot fudge, whipped cream, and toasted almonds. It’s pretty good.

DANK

 

2:15 – After a lackluster third quarter where the Packers went scoreless and the Bucs made a field goal, the Bucs score again, this time on a 9-yard pass from Freeman to Mike Williams. The Bucs miss the two-point conversion attempt and the Packers have a tenuous 21-19 lead. Officially nervous.

2:25 – Phew, all is right in the world again–for now. Aaron Rodgers leads an 8-play, 90-yard touchdown drive that is culminated in a 2-yard John Kuhn touchdown run. KUHHHHHHHN!!! Troy Aikman jokes that the Packers just try to figure out who hasn’t scored in a while to determine how they will dole out their touchdowns. He may be right. 28-19 Packers.

2:45 – After forcing a Bucs punt (which was an absurdly dumb decision by Raheem Morris, down two scores with less than six minutes to play, on 4th-and-3 from their own 37), this game is all but over. Wait, what???? On first down, Aaron Rodgers throws his first truly bad interception (if memory serves correct one was a great play by Brian Urlacher and the other two were tipped balls) of the season and now it’s Bucs ball near midfield. Ruh roh.

2:50 – NOOOOOOO!!!!! Bucs quickly score a touchdown to make it 28-26. The only difference in the game now is their previously missed two-point conversion. This could be disastrous.

3:00 – Once again, all is right in the world. Rodgers hits White Lightning for a 40-yard touchdown and the Packers take a 35-26 lead which will be the final score. Not a pretty win but the Packers are 10-0.

Takeaways

  • For really the first time all season, Aaron Rodgers didn’t look very sharp. There were a few drops but there were some throws that he normally makes but missed yesterday. It’s pretty good that a bad day is 23/34 for 299 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception but I’m sure he would be the first to say that there are some throws from yesterday–particularly the interception–that he would like to have back.
  • Jordy Nelson is tearing it up! It seems like almost every ball that is thrown to him is complete for a big gain. According to Advanced NFL Stats, this perception is reality. He leads the league in yards per target with 14.3 (second place is Mike Wallace with 12.5) and is second in the league in the receptions/targets ratio–He has 53 targets and 40 receptions for a 75.6% reception rate, trailing only Jason Avant who is at 76.2% but with 11 less targets and eight fewer catches.
  • The defense didn’t play particularly well yesterday in tackling or coverage. It gave up 455 yards to a Buccaneers offense that had been averaging 331 yards in its first nine games. This is a little precarious.
  • Even though the team didn’t play very well, the Packers got the win. It is a testament to their skill and confidence that they can win games when they aren’t at their best. Net in net, I would say that yesterday’s game is a positive. It didn’t cost them their perfect season and should give them the sense that they are not invincible. It should allow the coaching staff to point out flaws and give constructive criticism in a manner that the players will listen instead of thinking that the coaches are just trying to find fault in their play. I expect the Packers to come out much sharper on Thursday against the Lions.

On ‘Sconnie…


November 18, 2011

Week 11 NFL Picks

Obviously, this introduction is going to be about Tim Tebow.

When he came out of Florida, I thought that he would be an average NFL starting quarterback, which is better than many people thought he would do. I bet my roommate 5 or 10 bucks that he would be a first round draft pick and happily collected. I thought, though, that he would become a better passer than he has demonstrated and that his running game would be less effective than it has been.

I know that there are many correlative factors that have gone into the Broncos’ 4-1 record with Tebow as starter this season. Weak schedule, stronger defense, etc. Von Miller in particular has been beastly and perhaps a greater reason for the Broncos’ success than Tebow. We can say that eventually opposing defenses are going to figure out how to stop the gimmicky option–and this is probably the case–but thus far they have not. We’ve never seen this type of offense work in the contemporary NFL but we’ve also never seen a quarterback with the size, strength, and speed of Tebow to go along with a system tailored to his strengths.

The closest comparison to Tebow I can think of is Vince Young, whose achievements and physical prowess as a running quarterback have been underrated due to his mental issues. Many people don’t realize that Young had a 30-17 career record as a starter, largely as a quarterback who wouldn’t completely ruin the fact that his team had a great defense. Tebow rushes for more yards (36.2 ypg in his career thus far) than Young did  (24.7 ypg) but more runs are called for him. Tebow clearly has a better attitude than Young but if NFL coaches thought he had the talent to win games at the same rate he has throughout the career, Young would likely be a starter somewhere.

As annoying as the deification of Tebow is, his teammates are responding to him. We live in a world where everything has to be quantified and we get derided as unsophisticated when we invoke intangibles but they have to matter, at least a little bit, in team games like football. Tebow’s success probably isn’t sustainable on a basis where he will win 80% of his starts but there is no doubt in my mind that he is a valuable asset at the quarterback position, especially if the Broncos are creative enough to utilize him in a platoon role where they have a conventional quarterback on some series and Tebow’s option offense on the others.

I like that Tebow is succeeding right now, in the face of so many who said he would and could not, in an outside the box manner that challenges what we think and know about the right way to win football games. I feel that he is sincere, if misguided, in his religious beliefs. And, as I said a few weeks ago, at least he’s interesting. Above all, I am in favor of anyone who makes my (sort of) job easier and I really hope that this run can somehow result in a Broncos playoff berth.

On to the picks, which as always are done with my buddy Asif who writes Uninformed Commentary.

Previous Records:
Ryan

Week 10: 8-8
Season: 81-59-5
Week 11 (so far): 1-0

Asif
Week 10: 7-9
Season: 76-64-5
Week 11 (so far): 0-1

Tennessee @ Atlanta (-6)

Ryan: This line is a little bit too high. I think I’ve undervalued Tennessee a little bit even as four of their five wins have come against teams (Broncos, Browns, Colts, and Panthers) with a combined record of 9-28.

In doing research for my Matt Leinart column yesterday, I was shocked to see that Matt Hasselbeck was #5 in ESPN’s Total QBR. His presence in the top 10 reads suspiciously like a “which one doesn’t belong?” riddle but he is actually having a pretty solid year; he is completing 61.9% of his passes with 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions. This is more impressive considering how little help he has gotten from Chris Johnson.

I agreed with Mike Smith’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-inches in overtime last week but not getting it is the kind of demoralizing event that could have a lingering effect this week. Titans cover.

Asif: I was initially a bit flabbergasted by Smith’s decisions to go for it on fourth and inches from his own 30 in overtime last week, but upon review it was definitely the right call. I haven’t looked at the numbers (what do I look like, an actual journalist who does research?), but from what I’ve seen during Smith’s tenure with the Falcons, he’s been more willing to go for it on fourth down than the average NFL coach, and that’s to his credit.

With Matt Schaub out for the season, Tennnesee has a legitimate shot at catching Houston for the AFC South crown, especially if Chris Johnson continues to play like he did last week. Unfortunately for all three fans in Nashville, I think the Falcons are the better team here and they should be hungry after a tough loss. Atlanta covers.

Buffalo @ Miami (-2)

Ryan: The wheels sure fell off the Bills (band)wagon fast, huh? After starting 5-2, Buffalo has been outgained 781-558 and outscored 71-18 the last two weeks.

The Dolphins, meanwhile, have been surging. Well, at least to the extent that a team that is now 2-7 can surge. Miami outscored the Chiefs and Redskins 51-12 the past two weeks and are a couple of bounces, blown leads, and supernatural interventions of the Tebow variety away from having won four in a row. They’ve been extra feisty. Dolphins cover.

Asif: Look, I know that Buffalo looked awful against Dallas last week and Miami has won two in a row, but I’m just not willing to take the Dolphins as favorites against a decent team, okay? Bills cover.

Cincinnati @ Baltimore (-7)

Ryan: Considering that this is a big game, the Ravens will actually be up for it. This is going to be a game where Andy Dalton, who at this point has a higher completion percentage, more touchdowns, and less interceptions than Cam Newton, is humbled a little bit against an angry Ravens defense.

I think that we see a heavy dose of Ray Rice, who for some reason only got five carries last week while Joe Flacco threw 52 times in a game where the Ravens were behind but never by more than two scores. The enigmatic Ravens are embodied by the enigmatic Joe Flacco, who at times can make WOW throws deep with strength and accuracy while at other times misses wide open receivers by comical margins on throws that should be easy. The Ravens should be sufficiently motivated for this game, though. Baltimore covers.

Asif: If only the Ravens tried as hard every week as they do against the Steelers. AJ Green’s status is really what’s going to swing this pick either way in mind and he’s a game time call. Personally, I think he plays and the Bengals cover.

Jacksonville (PK) @ Cleveland

Ryan: The Jaguars should be favored in this game by at least a field goal. Along with the Titans, I would qualify them as a “good bad team.” The Browns, meanwhile, are a bad bad team. Like, they lost to the Rams last week. I don’t imagine that I will see too much of this game. Jaguars cover.

Asif: This week’s Derp Bowl is a close call between this game and the Seahawks @ Rams (more on that abortion later). I’m going to go ahead and call this game the Derp Bowl because I can’t think of one good thing about either team. Coincidentally neither can Browns fans:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRBDMMVctu8

I’m going to go ahead and say the Jaguars shut down the factory of sadness this week, in the derpiest possible way.

Oakland (-1) @ Minnesota

Ryan: Vikings on a short week. Game means much more for the Raiders who absolutely need to win this one to hold on to their one-game lead in the AFC West. Somehow, some way, Carson Palmer demonstrated arm strength last week. Have we checked his passport for stamps from Germany or mailbox for shipments from Dr. Anthony Galea? Raiders cover.

Asif: Oakland has the best running back tandem in the league after Houston’s Arian Foster – Ben Tate monster. Michael Bush absolutely beasted the Chargers last week and there’s no reason to think he won’t be able to do the same against the Vikings. So long as Carson Palmer doesn’t muck everything up, I don’t see the Raiders having much trouble here. Oakland covers.

Carolina @ Detroit (-7)

Ryan: The Lions are coming off a pretty embarrassing 37-13 #beatemdown last week at the hands of the Bears and have now lost three out of four.

The Panthers are coming off a pretty embarrassing loss themselves, getting dropped 30-3 last week by the Titans. Cam Newton has not progressed intra-season in the way that Panthers fans would have hoped. He is still a pretty safe bet to be the franchise’s long-term answer, though, and it may be good that he is suffering lumps now. Each one will drive him this offseason.

My gut feeling is that the Lions cover but the only true safe bet in this game is that the Lions manage to get in a fight with the other team for the infinitieth straight week.

Asif: Early on this season it seemed as if Carolina would be able to give good teams trouble and beat bad teams, but right now they’re sitting at 2-7. They should have won last week, instead Chris Johnson ran all over them and this was the first time he’s run all over anyone this season.

Detroit’s problems all started when Jahvid Best got hurt. They’re a much weaker team when they don’t have even the slightest threat of a running game. Still, the Lions play really well at home so I’ll take Detroit to cover.

Tampa Bay @ Green Bay (-14)

Ryan: In 2009, the Packers were 4-3 and coming off their second loss to the Brett Favre-led Vikings in less than a month. To regain momentum and confidence, they needed to beat the 0-7 Buccaneers in the worst way and didn’t. Aaron Rodgers didn’t need to be reminded of these circumstances this week. Even after a Super Bowl title and nine games this season of if-I-don’t-get-hurt-I-will-win-NFL-MVP-in-a-landslide play, Rodgers is the best in the world at synthesizing motivation. His and the Packers’ lights out play continue this week. Packers cover.

Asif: Battle of the bays! And other annoying tag lines that Chris Berman will use to characterize this game! Speaking of Berman, the one thing that I am most thankful for when it comes to football is that Mike Alstott is retired so I never have to hear Berman do his truck impression ever again.

There’s been a lot of talk about the Bucs regression. My take on all of it is that they’re playing to their actual talent level and Raheem Morris isn’t a good coach after all. Packers cover.

Dallas (-7.5) @ Washington

Ryan: In ranking the NFL head coaches in my NFL season preview, here is what I wrote about Mike Shanahan when I ranked him #23:

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.

I have no idea where I got that Leinart thing from (was it a rumor at the time? The Lockout seems so long ago) and Haynesworth proved himself to be unreachable on a third team but the general tenor of my preview–that Shanahan is a megalomaniac and the ‘Skins would quit around sometime around Week 4–rings true. Since Week 4, the Redskins have lost five in a row and been outscored 115-53. I am picking against them blindly every game for the rest of the year. Cowboys cover.

Asif: The Redskins are soooooo bad that it hurts to think about them playing football. I can’t believe they beat my Giants in Week 1. Cowboys hype will reach critical mass after this game. I’m picking December 4th @ Arizona as the date of the (next) Romo-pocalypse. Dallas covers.

Arizona @ San Francisco (-9.5)

Ryan: John Skelton wins football games! Maybe not this week, though. Gotta keep picking the 49ers to cover until they don’t. They still seem to be a little bit under the radar. 49ers cover.

Asif: San Francisco is really good. John Skelton on the road, not so much. 49ers cover.

Seattle @ St. Louis (-2)

Ryan: In terms of degrees of badness, I feel like the Rams are much, much worse. In a weird way, Tarvaris Jackson has looked semi-maybe-just-a-little-bit-OK at throwing the football the last few games. Who knew? Seahawks cover.

Asif: Derp Bowl runner up. I give this game two farts and a dismissive wank on the watchability scale. Seattle covers, or whatever, I don’t really care.

San Diego @ Chicago (-3.5)

Ryan: The Bears have won four in a row while the Chargers have lost four in a row. These two teams are headed in completely opposite directions right now and it is astonishing that this line is this low. The Chargers have been getting absolutely DOMINATED on the line on offense and defense. It seems like this is going to be a year of reckoning for Norv Turner and AJ Smith and it might be for the best. Bears cover.

Asif: It sure seems like Philip Rivers and Jay Cutler have switched bodies, what with Cutler cussing at his coaches and Rivers trying to set a new record for boneheaded interceptions. I think it’s all because Norv Turner’s surprisingly hot daughter has been tempting him with the secular flesh. I base this on absolutely nothing. Also, if the Chargers miss the playoffs and Norv isn’t fired we can just go ahead and assume that he has incriminating pictures of AJ Smith. Oh, and the Bears cover.

Philadelphia @ NY Giants (-4.5)

Ryan: Seems like this just isn’t the year for the Eagles. Don’t know what to say about it other than that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to give Vick a contract extension before the season. They obviously could have gotten better value by waiting. Can’t see Eli and the Giants losing this one. Giants cover.

Asif: If I were setting the lines this one would be at a touchdown especially with Michael Vick nursing broken ribs while going up against an excellent Giants pass rush. Andy Reid seems to have completely lost the Eagles locker room, which makes me immensely happy. Giants cover.

Monday Night:

Kansas City @ New England (-15)

Ryan: If I lose picking against Tyler Palko, making his first start of his career, on the road, on Monday night, against a resurgent Patriots team, so be it. Patriots cover.

Asif: I realize this isn’t exactly a revelation, but I’m going to go ahead and say that the Patriots will coast their way into the top seed in the AFC. Of course it will all be moot when they lose their first playoff game yet again. Pats cover.


November 17, 2011

Can Matt Leinart Prevent the Texans Ship from Sinking?

When Matt Schaub was pronounced out for the year following a foot injury that he suffered on a quarterback sneak in Sunday’s 37-9 Texans win over the Buccaneers, the general narrative became that the team was screwed as it transitioned from Schaub to colossal bust Matt Leinart. This view was shared by CBS’s Mike Freeman:

Anyone who believes Matt Leinart will lead the Texans to a Super Bowl post-Schaub hasn’t seen him play. He is easily one of the worst quarterbacks I’ve seen in the last three years or so in the NFL. He is painfully inaccurate, has no pocket presence, very little arm strength and isn’t a leader. Other than that, he’ll be just fine.

Does this injury lower the Texans’ ceiling? Probably. But does it end their season? I don’t think so.

Matt Leinart is not coming in and replacing Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, or Ben Roethlisberger; Matt Schaub is a very good quarterback but he is not elite. He ranks 8th this season in Total QBR behind the aforementioned superstars as well as Tony Romo, Matt Hasselbeck, and Eli Manning. While the Texans are 7-3 this year and Schaub has played very well, Schaub is 32-34 in his career as a starter. He was nowhere near a safe bet to lead this team to the Super Bowl.

Leinart is not being asked to be the organization’s savior; he takes over a 7-3 Texans squad that has a 1.5 game lead in the AFC South over the Tennessee Titans–who I continue to believe are not that good–and has one of the best offensive lines and, relatedly, running games in the NFL as well as the 6th-ranked defense in Football Outsiders’s DVOA metric. The Texans have a fortuitously scheduled bye this week to bring Leinart fully up to speed and should get Andre Johnson back in time for next Sunday’s game in Jacksonville.

Leinart has not been nearly as bad as most people think. He is 7-10 in his career as a starter, has a 57.1% completion rate, 14 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions. 16 of those 17 starts came in his first two seasons in the NFL, a time when very few quarterbacks flourish. Troy Aikman went 2-15 in his first 17 starts; Peyton Manning went 4-13. Will Matt Leinart have as great of a career as those two? Almost assuredly not, but we haven’t seen enough from him to unequivocally label him a bust yet.

Grantland’s Bill Barnwell argues that the bust label has been unfairly applied to Leinart in part because of Ken Whisenhunt, who has not proven himself to be a competent evaluator of the quarterback position:

Despite [Derek Anderson's mediocrity], Whisenhunt preferred Anderson, and cut the former first-round pick [Leinart]. Anderson was arguably the worst opening-day starter in football, and the team bounced between him and rookies Max Hall and John Navarre Skelton throughout the season. Each rated among the worst quarterbacks in football. The following year, Whisenhunt traded for Kevin Kolb. Kolb was, not coincidentally, one of the worst quarterbacks in football this season before suffering an injury. Whisenhunt is the primary reason Matt Leinart is considered a bust, and over the course of his career as Cardinals coach, Whisenhunt has shown virtually no ability to pick the right starting quarterback for his team.

Another reason why Leinart has had the “bust” label unfairly applied to him is the Deadspin posts from 2008 where he was pictured holding a beer bong with attractive girls. In the offseason. From these pictures, he got the reputation for “not being fully passionate about football” (of course said in a holier-than-thou sportswriter tone). He was 24 or 25 years old in these pictures and almost any red-blooded male not named Tim Tebow would have taken advantage of Leinart’s situation, which, to put it bluntly, enabled him access to these parties and all that happens afterwards that is only a fantasy for 99.9% of the population. It’s a lot easier to preach unencumbered focus when one does not face the same opportunity costs.
Somewhat off topic, these moral and professional standards are only applied to quarterbacks–Victor Cruz and other members of the New York Giants were in a club at 2:30 AM late Monday night (saying, early ____ morning in these situations always sounds odd to me) when gunshots rang out (the Giants were not involved with that in any way). It is unlikely that Cruz will be vilified as being unfocused and unprofessional three years from now solely because of this incident AND HE SHOULDN’T BE BECAUSE THESE PLAYERS ARE YOUNG MEN, NOT ROBOTS.
With their 1.5-game lead, Leinart and the Texans should be able to hold off the Titans to win the AFC South. They have a shot at a first round bye but will almost definitely host a playoff game. It remains to be seen whether Houston’s roster is good enough and whether Matt Leinart can be a neutral-to-positive force as opposed to a liability and this will go a long way in determining whether the Texans to advance in the playoffs. However, we also don’t know whether that was the case for Schaub and I think that there is a reasonably good chance we will find out that Leinart is not nearly as bad as most people seem to think.

Quick Pick: Jets @ Broncos

As always, picked against Asif, who writes Uninformed Commentary.

NY Jets (-6) @ Denver

Ryan: This game is going to be fascinating to watch. Just four days later, the Jets could very well run the complete opposite defense that they deployed against the Patriots–where they often had seven defensive backs–and stack nine in the box, leaving Darelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie in single coverage.

It seems extremely logical that the Jets would cover this spread. However, I saw via Darren Rovell (who unrelatedly has been really annoying me in the last week or two…I’ve almost unfollowed him like three times but stuck around because two or three times a day he points things out that are very interesting) that 95% of the action is on the Jets. Considering that the line hasn’t shifted drastically, this means Vegas is betting on the Broncos and I’d rather be on that side than the public’s. Broncos cover as I brace for disaster and an angry GChat from my friend Teller, a die hard Jets fan.

Asif: I’m immensely disappointed that Rex Ryan only got three days to game plan for Tim Tebow, not that it’s that hard to do. With Knowshon Moreno gone for the season and Willis McGahee likely out this week, the Broncos offense is reduced to Tim Tebow running right, Tim Tebow running left, and Tim Tebow running up the middle. This is going to be fun. Jets cover.


November 15, 2011

Football and Me Part XI

This is the eleventh post in a series in which I will document this football season. It will broadly be about the Badgers and Packers but will more specifically be about myself in it. Football season does not just happen on the field. It is about great friends, foods, drinks, and merriment. My hope is that it will be interesting for readers but at the very least it will serve as a journal to look back on. I wish I had done this last year.

Times are approximate…

Friday

7:00 PM – Decided not to make the trip to Minnesota because of my policy of no longer going to Badger football games where they are favored by more than 30. For dinner, I went on a Little Vietnam crawl in Uptown with my friends Dan and Rose. I know the restaurants in the neighborhood quite well because I worked at an [unpaid] internship up there for four months about two years ago; lunch was the only oasis in days that were otherwise filled with anguish and despair. First stop was at Bale, a little restaurant that does banh mi sandwiches at inexplicably low prices. A dank sandwich and soda come out to less than five bucks and they don’t skim on the portions.

7:30 – Second stop on the crawl is Pho 888. We were planning on going to Tank Noodle, which Dan has yet to try and is on his “list,” but it has a line. This is fine by me because I like Pho 888 better anyways–anecdotally it always has a higher Asian:White clientele ratio than Tank Noodle and I’ve found this ratio to generally be correlative with the quality and authenticity of Asian cuisine. Already almost full from our sandwiches, Dan and I split pho with medium rare eye ground beef, well done beef, soft tendon, beef tripes & meatballs. We have the added bonus of enjoying this outstanding meal with New Glarus Spotted Cow and Leinenkugel’s Creamy Dark (not pictured) that I still had in my fridge from our camping trip about a month ago.

Pho 888

Saturday

2:30 PM – I get to Will’s Northwoods Inn for the Badgers game just in time for kickoff. Overall, it was pretty uneventful but I shared a table with my friend Greg and a couple of his buddies and saw my friends Jon and Brett there. Wisconsin ended up winning 42-13 in a game that was generally stress-free. Russell Wilson went 16-17 for 178 yards and four touchdowns (I’m not an advanced statistician but I think that’s pretty good?) while Nick Toon caught eight balls for 100 yards and two touchdowns. Montee Ball scored twice, setting the all-time Big Ten record with his 27th touchdown this season and he still has two games left to add distance to the record.

Because of how dominant Wisconsin’s offensive line, and therefore running backs, are year in and year out, it is difficult to evaluate how good Ball actually is but my hasty suspicion is that he’s better than John Clay, PJ Hill, Brian Calhoun, Anthony Davis, and Michael Bennett and maybe–just maybe–as good as Ron Dayne. He is a truck and one of the best Badgers of our lifetime. I already can’t wait to give him a standing O and subsequent bow as he is introduced on the field at halftime at Camp Randall during his bye week in a few years (all Badger fans can envision Camp Randall/Kohl Center PA man Mike Mahnke introducing Ball’s achievements and stats as we figure out that it’s him before his name is formally announced and start going nuts).

Sunday

12:00 PM – I go to The Stretch in Wrigleyville by myself to watch the NFL slate. I had walked by it a few nights back after trying the Chicken and Waffle pizza special at Ian’s and was drawn by its TV set-up: four screens conjoined together in a rectangle in the center with a screen on either side. The best part of the bar, though, was that the manager had his finger on the pulse of the NFL action. Without prompting, he had chosen the six best games and in the event that one was an unwatchable blowout while another was interesting, he switched quickly. The second that noon games ended, he switched the screens over to 3pm games. In my illustrious career of watching football at bars, this is the best I have ever seen someone handle a Sunday NFL slate.

Another highlight from The Stretch were a group of three fellows from London in their late 20s/early 30s who were in town for the weekend on business. Sitting directly to my left at the bar, one of them decided to try to drink all of the beers that The Stretch had off tap–somewhere around 20. He was visibly disgusted with Keystone and Busch (I know, I know–Keystone is delicious…) and was a little over halfway done at the time I left. In his own words, he was “bollocks’ed.”

For lunch at The Stretch, I ordered a bacon cheeseburger with avocados. The burger was very good but not a destination meal. The fries were thick which can sometimes pose a problem if they are undercooked and therefore too potato-ey but these were well done and crispy. Overall a very satisfying meal.

Burger at The Stretch

Monday

4:30 – I get to Will’s three hours before kickoff of Packers-Vikings to make sure that I get a table; even though I am there this early I get the 2nd-to-last desirable table in the room. My friend Isaac is holding the table next to mine and we commiserate about how much longer we still have to wait.

My general feelings on the Packers’ playing on Monday Night Football: When it finally comes, it is AWESOME, especially when the Packers are dominant (albeit perhaps not on a historical level!) and everyone in the country gets to see the amazing football team that I watch every down of while Jaws and Gruden talk about Aaron Rodgers like Jim Nantz talks about the greens at The Master’s. But the wait is interminable. Sunday and Monday. There is nothing I hate more than delayed gratification and I always just end up wishing that they played Sunday at noon.

6:00 – Hannah (at my table last week) and her friends Maggie and Katie arrive. Still only halfway to kickoff and time has started to slow to a halt. To help pass the time, I order a bacon cheeseburger with tater tots and actually remember to get sides of buffalo sauce and ranch. I will mix these with ketchup (in equal proportions) to create a super sauce for my tots.

Burger at Will's

7:00 – Habib arrives and hands me a Philly cheesesteak, sans vegetables, from Philly’s Best. He actually had the nerve to bring me this cheesesteak as a surprise so when he arrived I had already eaten my bacon cheeseburger. What an awful friend. I contemplate being a complete glutton and eating it anyway but I’m, like, trying to watch my figure (I imagine that one gets a different impression reading this diary but I’ve lost more than 10 pounds in the last four months). The cheesesteak currently sits in my fridge waiting to be devoured at a time I feel I deserve it. Also, friends Greg, Amy, Cindy, Nicole, Abby, and Kim arrive and take spots at nearby tables that are well within high five range.

7:15 – After hearing that Maggie works at Redmond’s, Habib and I realize that she was our “very attentive server” who I briefly wrote about in Football and Me Part III. We have her take a picture of us and send it with the caption “kicking it with my boys at Will’s” to Mario who, as we find out immediately via text from Crest, is insanely jealous. In unrelated news, this game needs to start like five hours ago. Come on Come onnnnnnnnn….

7:35 – And we’re off! The Packers defense forces a three-and-out and Randall “corn on the” Cobb returns the punt for a touchdown. 7-0 Packers. I DON’T WANNA WORK…I JUST WANNA BANG ON THE DRUMS ALL DAY……..

8:05 – After the defense comes up strong again (handshakes…), Aaron Rodgers–who has strikingly beautiful eyes–leads an 11-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that is consummated on a 24-yard rocket to Greg Jennings over the middle that strongly resembled their touchdown connection in the Super Bowl. 14-0 Packers and we are very close to having one of those elusive stress-free games.

9:15 – The Packers offense was quiet for the rest of the half as the team takes a 17-0 lead into halftime. It’s time for the halftime raffle! Unfortunately, no one at our table wins anything (my goal in life is to win the game bib overalls that are given away each week…I set very lofty goals for myself) but the raffle always does an unbelievable job at erasing halftime. Kevin, the manager at Will’s, is the MC and has a wonderful cadence in doling out the prizes:

“OK, so we have a ‘I like my tundra frozen t-shirt. And the winning number is…394…394…check your tickets…’I like my tundra frozen t-shirt’…394…check your tickets…394…394…going once…394…going twice…394.” At this point it can go one of two ways. Either someone has the winning ticket and Kevin exclaims, “We have a winner!” or, as happens about 25% of the time, no one claims the prize and the bar joins Kevin in yelling, “New number!” as the process starts again.

10:00 – The Packers are now up 38-7 and the game has long since ceased being interesting for any purposes other than “To what extent can we thoroughly embarrass the Vikings?” Rodgers still takes all the Favre stuff very personally which may explain why the offense never lost its focus in this game as it has in other blowouts this year. He finishes the day 22-30 for 250 yards and four touchdowns with completions to 10 different targets. Over the past 15 games–all Packers wins–Rodgers is playing sports on a level that I have only seen matched by Michael Jordan in my lifetime. His accuracy, strength, and decision-making over this stretch have just been unparalleled.

10:20 – The Geico commercial with Brian Orakpo and the caveman comes on for approximately the 8908324648th time tonight. A few quick thoughts:

  • Are they supposed to be playing Scrabble?
  • If so, why isn’t it a normal Scrabble board? Licensing fees?
  • If they are playing Scrabble, Orakpo is cheating. Orakpoed and Geico aren’t words and he wouldn’t have had enough letters to spell “neanderthal” as the board was presently constituted.
  • Why is everyone, including Orakpo, always such a jerk to the caveman? It was funny at first but he’s clearly sensitive and I think that the time has come where people need to give him a break. HE’S DOING THE BEST HE CAN IN THIS NEW WORLD.
10:30 – Just for fun, Matt Flynn gets a rushing touchdown and obligatory Lambeau Leap. 45-7 Packers. Habib and I are sadistically hoping for a defensive touchdown on the next drive as a final stake in the heart. We also really want someone–anyone–to imitate Jared Allen’s stupid lasso dance that he has been doing all game even when the Vikings were down by three scores (or more) and he had nothing to do with the play. Neither come. FIRE McCARTHY AND THOMPSON…
***
I don’t really know what to take away from this game other than that the Packers are a lot, lot, lot, lot better than the Vikings. The defense, which had struggled a bit in recent weeks, was marvelous–the only Vikings score came on a short field set up by a Randall Cobb fumble. Speaking of which, Cobb’s fumbles–he now has three of them on returns this season–are a little bit worrisome and could spell disaster in a close game which the Packers will theoretically have at some point this season.

Overall, it was great to see the Packers dominate a game from start to finish, especially against stupid Jared Allen and the rest his stupid purple team from the state that borders Wisconsin on the left. I already can’t wait for Wisconsin-Illinois and Packers-Buccaneers next weekend. On ‘Sconnie…


November 14, 2011

How Not to Rebuild a Baseball Team

by

This Friday, discerning baseball fans were rather shocked when the Philadelphia Phillies gave former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon 4-years and $50 million to relocate to the city of brotherly love. While some have cheered the move due to Papelbon’s successful track record in baseball’s toughest division (the AL East), make no mistake, the Papelbon contract is colossally stupid and an indication of a wider problem in the way the Phillies approach building their team. Let’s break down the reasons why this was a bad move, while analyzing it in the context of where Philadelphia stands moving forward.

1.      The Phillies would have been much better off retaining Ryan Madson. 

Early last week, it appeared that the Phillies were close to a 4-year $44 million agreement with Madson, who stepped nicely into Philadelphia’s closer role last season. Apparently, Phillies ownership backed out of the deal when GM Ruben Amaro sent it to them for approval, which led Amaro to sign Papelbon instead. Leaving the money aside for right now, Madson is a better pitcher than Papelbon at this stage in their respective careers. After a disastrous 2010, Papelbon was great in 2011 as he rediscovered the splitter that was his out pitch early in his career. There’s been some speculation that Papelbon stopped throwing the splitter to preserve his arm for his walk year and if that’s the case, I’d be extremely worried as a Phillies fan. When Papelbon is a one-pitch pitcher, he is very predictable and homer-prone. Furthermore, Papelbon is no longer the guy from 2006 and 2007 who could be used for two-inning saves–he’s much more of a three-out ninth-inning only type these days, albeit a very good one. Right now, Madson would not only have been cheaper, but offers more flexibility and a better pitch mix, with the ability to miss bats using both the fastball and changeup.

 2.      Attrition rates for relievers are staggering.

Unless you’re talking about Mariano Rivera, who transcends physics, giving a four-year contract to a reliever on the wrong side of 30 is a bad idea. How many long-term reliever contracts have we seen work out in the past? Francisco Rodriguez was an albatross for the Mets as was Billy Wagner for a time. The Phillies should know better than this given that Brad Lidge had only one good year over the course of his contract in Philadelphia. It’s pretty telling that the Red Sox let the best reliever in team history walk away without even offering a formal contract. As GM Ben Cherington indicated, the Red Sox didn’t think allocating four years to Pap was a smart investment. The fact is, most relievers really only have a short window of excellence and while Papelbon may be the best of his generation, it’s not insane to think his time has come and gone.

 

As for the age factor here, it seems to be a recurring theme in Philadelphia…

3.      The Phillies don’t seem to understand how aging works.

The Phillies are the best team in the NL East, and probably the whole NL. They built their foundation on the backs of great, young, home-grown talent. They’d do well to understand that when they hit the free agent market. Volumes of research have proven that most major leaguers hit their performance peaks between the ages of 28 and 30 and begin to decline after that. The Phillies don’t seem to grasp this concept as they’ve given huge contracts to Raul Ibanez (3 years $30MM) despite the fact that he can’t hit lefties or play left field; Ryan Howard (5 years $127MM) despite the fact that he can’t hit lefties or breaking balls and looks to have a terrible aging profile; and now Papelbon, all on the wrong side of 30. Ibanez will likely be replaced by Domonic Brown this season, which is a step in the right direction, but the Phillies are planning to replace the injured Howard with a platoon of Jim Thome and possibly Michael Cuddyer, which is a step back. While Thome can still crush the baseball and Cuddyer is a decent bat against lefties, neither of them plays first base well (Thome hasn’t played there in years) and both are again, on the wrong side of 30. Sensing a pattern here?

 

The Phillies are aging across the board. Jimmy Rollins, who will likely depart as a free agent this winter, has clearly lost a step and never had the plate patience to mitigate the erosion of his skills. At the same time it appears that repeated injury has taken its toll on Chase Utley. Of the Phillies projected 2012 position players only Hunter Pence (28), John Mayberry Jr. (27) and Domonic Brown (24) are under the age of 30.

Philadelphia’s rotation is still a murderer’s row, with Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee all perennial Cy Young award contenders and Vance Worley providing stability as a number four starter. Still, Halladay (34) and Lee (33) aren’t getting any younger. Hamels is slated to become a free agent after the 2012 season at the age of 28. Given his performance and age he should command 4 to 5 years at around $20 million per year, and the Red Sox and Yankees figure to be involved in the bidding.

All these factors point to one conclusion: 2012 is the last year where the Phillies should be considered World Series contenders. Hamels will likely leave after the season and the Phillies don’t have a great bumper crop of prospects to replace aging stars like Utley. Inside their division, Atlanta has a wealth of young pitching in top prospects Mike Minor, Arodys Vizcaino, Julio Teheran, and Randall Delgado to go with an already solid rotation with Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson. The Braves need another bat before they can be considered a real threat to Philadelphia, but they just freed up a bunch of money by trading away Derek Lowe. Add to that the Marlin’s apparent newfound willingness to spend money to improve their infield and the Phillies’ reign atop the NL East appears tenuous.

It’s a testament to the Phillies’ current talent level that they’re still the hands down NL favorites for 2012, but the fact is they haven’t positioned themselves well for the future and one wonders whether they have the firepower in their lineup necessary to compete with top-tier AL teams. The Papelbon signing just appears to be another symptom of an organizational problem.


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