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January 30, 2012

Where will Peyton Manning End Up?

At this point, it seems almost certain that Peyton Manning will be cut.  “According to sources who were involved in the Colts’ GM search, the organization was planning to move on from Manning weeks ago, well before this public squabble between the quarterback and his owner,” NFL Network’s Jason La Canfora said Friday on “NFL Total Access.” This is unsurprising, as Manning is due a a $28 million roster bonus on March 8th; trading Manning would result in a $38 million cap charge for the Colts.

As Indianapolis has the first pick in the draft and the ability to choose between Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, it makes complete sense for them to re-build. What doesn’t make sense in hindsight is having signed Manning to a contract which ensured they could get nothing in return. What’s done is done, though, and the culprit of that mistake, Bill Polian, has already been let go by the Colts.

No longer obligated to speak politically, Polian’s words last week about Manning’s injury detail just how ambiguous the timetable of his recovery will be. “No one can know when and if Peyton’s nerve that controls the triceps muscle will regenerate completely and enough for him to play,” said Polian.  “The expectation is that it will.  When it will, no one can predict.”

Therefore, Peyton Manning speculation will be the Brett Favre speculation of the 2012 offseason and it will be three-tiered: Will he be healthy, When will he be healthy, and Where will he play? The longer his health is uncertain, the longer the story draws out.

To try to evaluate the third question, let’s assume that he is cut before his roster bonus is due and that his neck heals by, say, early July. Where will he end up? Here are my power rankings, from least likely to most likely:

Continue reading Where will Peyton Manning End Up?


January 25, 2012

Risks and Rewards of Toradol

Last night, Andrea Kremer debuted a piece on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel that details the widespread usage of Toradol in the NFL. Toradol was described as being a unique painkiller in that it is legal, non-addictive, not a narcotic (like Vicodin and Oxycontin), and not localized to a specific body region like Cortisone or Novocaine.  Kremer called the drug a “virtual shield of armor” that “masks pain from head to toe.”

This description would seem to imply that its usage is risk-free but, as it was leading Real Sports, this is of course not the case–it can lead to stomach bleeding or kidney failure. Kremer interviewed Jeremy Newberry, who made two Pro Bowls in his 11 seasons on the 49ers, Raiders, and Chargers; Newberry was a frequent Toradol user.

Newberry described the effects of the painkiller: “It’s something that will make you feel like Superman for three hours and then it wears off in a hurry and you’re hurt again.” Its use in the locker room was rampant. “I’ve seen lines of 20 or 30 of [my teammates] lining up for a shot.” Newberry teared up as he talked about being diagnosed with Stage 3 kidney failure and the implications on his life as well as those of his three children with a fourth on the way. He had never been informed of the health risks by team doctors.

If he had known about them, though, would he still have taken Toradol? The question was never addressed but the answer is somewhere between probably and definitely. Kremer interviewed Brian Urlacher, who has used Toradol, and asked if he had ever been made aware of the health risks. He had not but his new knowledge would not be a deterrent.

Continue reading Risks and Rewards of Toradol


January 23, 2012

Paterno’s Complicated Legacy

The legendary Joe Paterno, 85 but recently seeming old for his age, passed away this past weekend and leaves behind a life full of accomplishment, altruism, and goodwill. His pristine reputation, earned in full public view in the past 46 years as Penn State’s head football coach, was tarnished in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, but not obliterated. The proportion of which these polar opposites will endure to form the ultimate shade of gray will depend more on individuals weighing and evaluating Paterno’s legacy than any collectively formed judgment.

My opinion at the time the scandal broke has not changed: when presented with a firsthand witnessed account of Sandusky’s alleged indiscretions by graduate assistant Mike McQueary, Joe Paterno, Tim Curley, and Graham Spanier acted consciously and in self-preservation to cover up the crime, thus enabling Sandusky to continue his abhorrent behavior for another eight years.

If Paterno had turned in Sandusky to the appropriate authorities–not merely his higher-ups in title but not compensation or power–in 2002, he would have been fired as Penn State football coach due to a combination of his age, the comparatively milder cover-up from 1998 when Sandusky was first investigated, and–most importantly from a career, if not humanitarian, perspective–that Penn State had been struggling on the football field and had not had a bowl appearance in the previous three years.

It’s impossible to say for sure what anybody else would have done if he/she were in McQueary, Paterno, Curley, or Spanier’s shoes. I would love to believe that I would have acted with the utmost character, become a shunned whistleblower, and seen my guilty conscience bury the entire Penn State football program. But, I’m skeptical of institutions and authority figures to my own self-detriment. And I still don’t know for sure how I would have acted in any of their shoes because doing the right thing would have meant the end of my career, my professional reputation, everything I had worked for–to truly empathize with these men, my life. Decisive, morally correct action by Paterno would not only have cost him his own job–his life–but would also have been a black eye on his beloved Penn State, a blemish so severe and inextricably linked to his life’s purpose that it could very well have deluded him into believing that he was acting selflessly and for the greater good.

Continue reading Paterno’s Complicated Legacy


January 20, 2012

Week 20 NFL Picks

I know, I know, it’s still football season–we are lucky enough to have two games this weekend!–but these west coast NBA games present quite the dilemma as far as budgeting my nights and week. Starting at 9:30 CST, they are quite the time investment. If it’s a close game and I start the second half, I’m in it till the finish. All of a sudden, it’s 12:30 and all hope I had of being productive in the morning is completely shot unless I inject mass amounts of caffeine directly into my veins. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for my brethren on the East Coast who have to get up before 7:00 to get ready for work. (Actually, I can imagine it quite well: these games simply are not an option. After one or two you learn your lesson. Never again.)This dilemma has presented itself three times in the past week or so and I ended up starting–and finishing–the second half twice. It’s agonizing in the heat of the moment.

It’s frustrating that of the 15 or so truly compelling teams in the league, 11 of them are in the Western Conference. Therefore, the options are to stay up, miss most of the great basketball until the playoffs–when you have to suck it up for about a month–until the conference finals when all the games are played at a more reasonable hour, or hope that by chance two of the four interesting Eastern Conference teams are playing each other or that a Western Conference is on the road center-east. The only real solution to this problem is for David Stern to rig it so that most of the good teams reside in the East. Get on it, commish.

Anyways, it is, after all, still football season. Let’s get to the picks, which, as always, are done against my friend Asif who writes Uninformed Commentary.

Continue reading Week 20 NFL Picks


January 17, 2012

Football and Me Part XVII-B

36 hours later and I’m still sort of reeling from this Packers loss. I have to start by giving an immense amount of credit to the Giants for forcing this sloppy play and playing mostly error-free football of their own. There was absolutely no doubt that the Packers were outplayed in this game. As torturous as this is going to be, I need to try to figure out how and why it all happened so I’m re-watching the game and writing a Bill Simmons-style retro diary. I will write broader takeaways at the bottom if you want to skip down to that part without re-living individual plays from the game.

This hurts badly before I even hit Play on my Tivo remote. Times represent what is remaining on the clock…

First Quarter

12:19  - Giants 1st-and-10 just past midfield. Desmond Bishop drops an interception. Would have been a great play but I’m sure it’s one he’d like to make. Happens, though.

8:37 – After bending most of the way down the field and giving up two big 3rd down conversions, the Packers don’t break inside the red zone. 3-0 Giants.

7:55 – Jermichael Finley drops his first pass of the day, one that would have given the Packers a first down around midfield (although the refs missed a penalty on the play). The Packers move the chains on the next play so this one wasn’t costly but you can’t drop first downs in big games.

6:32 – And Finley drops another ball, this one is completely inexcusable – he was wide open and the pass was lofted perfectly. It would have given the Packers 3rd-and-1 at the very worst just outside the red zone.

5:38 – On third down, Rodgers misses a WIDE open Greg Jennings on what would probably have been a touchdown if he hit Jennings in stride. Worst case would have been 1st-and-goal inside the 5. I can count on one hand how many times Rodgers missed that pass this season. Packers have to settle for a field goal after that drive saw two drops and an errant throw. 3-3.

4:37 - On 3rd-and-11, Eli Manning has all day and hits Hakeem Nicks for a first down. He’s converted third downs for 8, 10, and 11 yards so far. AND NOOOOOOO….

3:47 – The next play, Manning hits Nicks over the middle, Charlie Peprah launches himself at Nicks but doesn’t wrap up, Nicks stands tall, and runs into the endzone without being touched again. AWFUL missed tackle. 10-3 Giants.

1:34 – Packers get extremely lucky. Greg Jennings fumbles before his knee is down, it gets ruled down by contact, and the Giants lose their challenge. This was pretty clearly a fumble and I’m not sure what the refs did or didn’t say on the replay. Unrelated question: why does the referee on the field have to rule challenges under the hood with what I imagine is a tiny screen? Why not have someone in the booth rule on reviews with a massive HDTV? Why not centralize challenges in NFL headquarters? It doesn’t seem as though the current system is optimal.

Second Quarter

14:54 – Kuuuuuuuuuuuuuhn touchdown catch! Bang on the Drums! 10-10…this was a completely undeserved touchdown, though, because Jennings definitely fumbled. Packers are lucky to be tied and not down two scores.

14:52 – Packers surprise onside kick! They fail to recover it, though. I actually said to the three people who would listen to me that I wanted this to be an onside kick. Good idea but it didn’t work out – The Giants got the ball on the Packers 40. Given that they probably would have gotten the ball that far anyway, I think it was worth the gamble for a chance to get the ball back. I think that Mike McCarthy sensed that something was a bit off and tried to give his team a spark.

12:32 – Brad Jones blocks the Lawrence Tynes field goal attempt! No harm, no foul on the failed onside kick. At this point, this feels like an everything-goes-wrong game for the Giants–they lost a challenge and a timeout on a bad call, gave up a touchdown, and got a field goal blocked. In games where you are underdogs by more than a touchdown, you can’t have those things go wrong. At this point, I’m feeling pretty good.

11:15 – Rodgers rushes for a first down on 3rd-and-10. Second time he’s done this so far today and it’s an invaluable aspect of his game. He rushes for another one two plays later before I finish typing this bullet.

9:17 – Relatively inconsequential drop by James Starks. Difference between 3rd-and-3 and 3rd-and-7. Doesn’t make it right.

9:12 – More consequential drop on the next play by Tom Crabtree on a ball that hit him squarely between the numbers–past the first down marker–and the Packers are forced to punt. It goes into the endzone. Damn.

5:34 – Eli Manning intercepted by Morgan Burnett after being pressured by Bishop! Miraculous what can be achieved when the pass rush works. I would have bet a lot of money on the Packers to win at this point.

3:37 - An unforced John Kuhn fumble KILLS what I was certain was going to be a Packers scoring drive. At the very worst, they were going into halftime tied, likely were going in up 13-10, and maybe going up 17-10. Because the Packers were receiving the ball in the second half, I had expected them to be up 20-10 the next time the Giants had the ball.

1:56 – Packers stop the Giants inside the 10 and force a field goal, and will get the ball back before the half. A little close for comfort but I’m feeling pretty good…

:06 – WTF?! Ahmad Bradshaw gets out of bounds on a 23-yard run that started in the middle of the field. Horrible defense. Good thing the Giants are stupidly going for it instead of kicking the 54-yard field goal…

:00 – WTFWTFWTFWTFWTFWTF??????!!!!!!!!! Hail Mary touchdown to Hakeem Nicks. Third time I’ve seen the Badgers or Packers give up a devastating hail mary touchdown in person this season. This has to be some sort of ignominious record? This play was shellshocking and the 13-minute halftime feels like hours. Lot of ballgame left but allowing the Giants to score from their own 40 with 15 seconds left was egregious. This series really hurt the crowd.

Third Quarter

14:52 – A drop by Ryan Taylor that would have made it 2nd-and-6 instead of 2nd-and-10. Not terribly consequential as the Packers picked up a first down on the next play but these drops have been contagious today.

13:12 – After uncharacteristically missing Jennings, Rodgers runs for another first down on 3rd-and-10. The Giants aren’t giving room for any big plays, though. This is where Favre would have started throwing INTs trying to get everything back at once.

10:28 - Man, after hitting Driver for a huge first down to get to the Giants’ 35, Rodgers gets stripped by Osi Umenyiora and the Giants recover. Jennings was wide open for a touchdown on the play. Split second difference and the Packers are only down a field goal. Every time the offense starts to get into rhythm, there’s a drop or a fumble.

9:06 – Giants go three-and-out. Other than giving up three huge plays, the defense has been pretty solid thus far. “How was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”

6:56 – Ryan Grant drops a perfect pass that will make for at worst 2nd-and-1. Six drops so far for the Packers.

3:55 – Jennings drops a touchdown. Pretty good coverage but the ball was placed directly into his hands. Seven drops. Crosby hits a field goal and the Packers are LUCKY only to be down a TD.

3:30 – The crowd hasn’t been all that great thus far but after a holding call pushes the Giants back to 1st-and-20 (then 2nd-and-20) on their own 10, we come alive. Except in rare cases, the home team has to do something to get the crowd into it. The Packers haven’t really put together a period of football to galvanize the masses yet but the crowd is making a reasonable effort to get into this. We sense that there’s a chance to steal this game even while being severely outplayed. We have faith that this team will find a way. Giants have to punt, if ever there were a time for a big Packers touchdown drive…

:49 – Rodgers picks up ANOTHER first down with his feet. That’s his fifth. Not sliding, he opens up his body for punishment. But if there was ever a time and a place for this risky behavior…

Fourth Quarter

13:00 – Kind of a bad throw, but perhaps a catchable ball that Finley drops on 3rd-and-5. Rodgers is pissed about the route and the drop but Finley was WIDE open and the ball didn’t need to be thrown like a rocket. Not sure who to blame there but it’s an unforced error; Aikman says it’s on Rodgers which I suppose is fair. The frustration on offense had really started to compound. Rodgers gets sacked on 4th-and-5 and the Packers are running out of chances. They had no right to only be down seven points at this point and their tenuous hold on this deficit doesn’t feel sustainable. We can still steal this game but it’s starting to feel precarious.

12:48 - Woodson misses a tackle on Hakeem Nicks. Don’t see that often. Difference between 2nd-and-8 and 2nd-and-4.

10:00 – Victor Cruz picks up a huge first down on 3rd-and-5 and you can clearly hear the Giants fans yelling Cruuuuuuuz on TV. I would estimate that there were 7,000 Giants fans in Lambeau. Gotta give them credit. Green Bay isn’t the easiest place to get to–it requires an expensive, two-leg flight or a flight and a two-hour drive from Milwaukee or 3.5-hour drive from Chicago–and the Giants fans mobilized, got this trip scheduled one week’s notice, outbid Packers fans for tickets on Stubhub all week, and showed up in full force to perhaps make a 25% difference in net effect of the Lambeau crowd for a game that they expected to be played in a frigid climate when they bought their seats. Props. These things are more poignant in hindsight but significant nonetheless.

7:51 – Packers defense stands up and holds the Giants to a field goal. Still a chance to steal this game but those chances are wearing thin. Packers have had more than enough and failed as a team to capitalize.

6:53 – And Ryan Grand fumbles, Giants recover and return it inside the Packers’ 5 (great tackle by Rodgers). A touchdown catch by Mario Manningham on the next play will end it. Basically no way to erase three scores in less than seven minutes. Finishing this out would be an exercise in masochism above and beyond what this has been so far. Because my goal was to understand how and why this has loss happened–and I think by and large I do at this point–I’m going to spare myself the rest of this game.

****************

Unlike many big Packer losses over the past ten years or so since I really got into them, this one left me disappointed, not angry. Mistakes were made but they were physical and not mental–and thus more excusable. There were no horrifyingly bad coaching decisions and no lack of effort or passion. It’s hard to be angry at your favorite team when everyone is trying his best and nervous tension causes drops or fumbles.

Therefore, there will be comparatively less long-lasting feelings from this game. This team is full of likable players, is well-coached, and has a tremendous front office and a nucleus that by-and-large will come back strong next year. With the Packers likely still in the first half of their window of opportunity to win championships with Rodgers at quarterback, this game feels more like the end of a chapter than the end of a book.

Off the top of my head, this game was not among the four most hurtful Packers losses of recent memory. I’m not sure whether the 4th-and-26 Eagles game in early 2004 or the Favre-to-Webster-in-overtime game against the Giants in early 2008 was the worst – probably the Giants game because it meant the end of the Favre era and cost the Packers a trip to the Super Bowl – is #1 but they are definitely both 1 and 2. In similarly unclear order, 3 and 4 are the overtime loss to the Cardinals on the Rodgers fumble and the combination of the two games where Favre beat the Packers with the Vikings in 2008. I don’t know if I am more guarded now than in the past but I’m not feeling the sting as badly as I was for those games. I might be overlooking others that also hurt more badly.

That being said, it’s never easy. This was a special team that won the Super Bowl last year and went an emphatic 15-1 in the regular season. I had very high expectations and really didn’t conceive of them losing this game. Until they did. That they had opportunity after opportunity to steal it despite being monumentally outplayed, but failed to sustain any momentum on offense, was quite disappointing. But it’s been a great run and a great season and there is not a sense of finality with this loss.

As frustrating as the Bradshaw-getting-23-yards-and-getting-out-of-bounds/Manning-Nicks hail mary sequence to end the first half was, it definitely could have been overcome–the Packers were 7.5-point favorites in this game and that series accounted for seven of them. The Packers lost this game because drops, turnovers, and, yes, some errant passes prevented the offense from ever getting into a rhythm. Every time it looked like something was building, the drive stalled. They fumbled three times – which should have been four but Jennings’ cough-up was ruled incorrectly – and recovered none of them. Credit to the Giants for forcing many of these errors but this wasn’t the sharp Packers squad that had won 21 of 22 coming into the game. This was the worst game that they played–including the loss to the Chiefs–in that stretch.

The defense is not to blame. It missed some tackles and gave up some big plays generally got its job done. It stopped the Giants several times on short fields and prevented a few red zone possessions from ending in touchdowns. It would be outstanding if they had someone who could get to the quarterback when Clay Matthews is contained but this has been a hole all season. They only allowed two Giants touchdowns before the game was out of hand–it’s hard to blame them for preventing the Manningham TD when the Giants started the drive inside the Packers 5–and did more than enough to keep the Packers in the game while the offense was sputtering.

In the third quarter, the Giants didn’t pick up a single first down. A common motif of the Packers’ past two seasons had been winning their games with great starts to the second half as they outscored their opponents in the third quarter 241-84 over a 32-game stretch. But due to forced and unforced errors, they failed to capitalize. The Giants let them hang around far longer than would be advisable but ultimately found a way to put the game solidly out of reach late.

Once again, much credit goes to the Giants organization and their fans for a successful business trip. With the exception of one Giants fan that resembled a Jersey Shore character who took exception to my common “I really, sincerely hope that the Giants lose tomorrow” refrain, said with a smile, that gets a rise out of most people, everybody we encountered was friendly, courteous, and having a blast in Green Bay. After having iceballs thrown at them by Eagles and Jets fans, they could not believe the hospitality that they were received with and were more than appreciative. They loved Lambeau and everything about and around it.

But part of me will always feel that the Packers lost this game under the auspices of controllable factors. Over the past season and a half, we have become accustomed to coming up with a big play that dramatically shifts the momentum in the Packers’ favor. It never came and the Packers couldn’t put enough small ones together to equal a big one at any point in the third quarter or early in the fourth–when they had opportunities to do so and execution was desperately needed–and suffered an early exit as a result.

As it always is, the offseason will be long and harrowing. For me, nothing in sports compares to the beauty and excitement of the Packers on an NFL Sunday and the loss of those will leave a gaping void in my life forever until mid-September. But perhaps the scarcity of these wonderful days is what makes it so special when it’s football season.

Although they certainly could have done it again this year, you can’t win the Super Bowl every season; winning one every 16 years means you are doing it twice as often as expected. It isn’t just greedy to count every season that doesn’t result in a championship as a failure unconditionally, it’s a self-effacing practice that leads to substantially more unhappiness than joy.

I love this team, am proud of what it has accomplished thus far on its journey, and am optimistic for its future. It never feels like we will make it to mid-September, but we always do. Go Pack Go.

 

 


Football and Me Part XVII-A

This is the seventeenth (and final, for this season, maybe) 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.

Man. Whirlwind of a weekend. So much fun with such great old friends, new friends, and food but such a devastating end to the Packers season. Weekend photo diary will be on this entry and a retro-diary of yesterday’s Packers game (this is going to be extremely painful to write but I want to try to figure out how and why they were beaten so badly) here.

Friday

10:00 PM - I Arrive the Econolodge in Green Bay with Raffi, Matt, Scott, and Hisham. About two months ago, when the Packers were 10-0, I figured out that they needed to go 3-3 while both the Saints and 49ers went 6-0 in order for there NOT to be a game at Lambeau Field this weekend. I checked hotel room rates on Priceline, and this, a 2-star hotel a little more than two miles from Lambeau, was going for $46/night + tax. If for some reason the previously described nightmare scenario played out, the room was cancelable until this past Wednesday. Essentially, I value-invested in a hotel room with no risk. When we check in, the clerk looks at my rate in disbelief and asks “How long ago did you book this??” before telling us that the day after I booked the room, the rate went up to $199/night. Win.

We’re at the hotel for long enough to quickly get in a glass of Jack on the rocks. CHEERS TO RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW. This weekend’s gonna be a good, good weekend.

10:30 – We get to Kroll’s West with healthy appetites. Matt, who had gotten to Green Bay a little ahead of us, could not stand to wait and got a butterburger and cheese curds at Culver’s (he’s spent countless hours over the past four years eating at EVERY franchise location in Wisconsin) but did not let this impact his performance at Kroll’s. This meal could really be its own entry. Hope you’re hungry.

Cheese curds, inferno wings at Kroll's
White cheese curds, yellow cheese curds, inferno wings. The white were better than the yellow, the wings had really good flavor but weren’t served piping hot. The best is yet to come.
Butter Burger @ Kroll's

My main course, a Butter bacon cheeseburger. This burger was on Man vs. Food (the part where they show dank restaurants in town before the challenge) and it was stunningly exquisite. I think it’s one of the top five burgers I’ve ever had in a restaurant (definitely surpassed by Kuma’s Corner in Chicago and Anchor Bar in Superior, WI). Would need to have it again to definitively evaluate some others to round out the top five.

Ribs, Mashed Potatoes, and Mac and Cheese at Kroll's

Matt’s order (remember that he was splitting all the communal appetizers with the rest of us and had already eaten a full dinner at Culver’s). I didn’t get to try any of the ribs, but that mac and cheese and oh my God those mashed potatoes were good. Dialogue with our server Sara (who I promise remembered me/us fondly when I went back to Kroll’s two nights later):

Matt: I’ll get the ribs.

Sara: That comes with two sides.

Matt: Hmm…I’ll go with the mac and cheese and mashed potatoes.

Sara: Would you like butter or gravy on those mashed potatoes?

Matt: Yes.

Sara: Beef gravy or chicken gravy?

Matt: Yes.

When they arrived, Matt took a bite, his eyes widened as his posture noticeably changed like everyone’s in the Seinfeld Soup Nazi episode and he forced a murmur: “Oh my God.” He passes the mashed potatoes to Raffi. Same reaction. Raffi passes them to me. I normally don’t like mashed potatoes and have had time to brace myself and adjust expectations accordingly after seeing two friends express amazement slink down in their seats. Same reaction. I pass to Hisham. “Oh my God.” Hisham passes to Scott. Same thing.

It turns out that these mashed potatoes, which had achieved heights that I didn’t know mashed potatoes were capable of, were just instant and the gravy was bought wholesale from Custom Culinary. I don’t even want to know how much butter they put in it (we asked, Sara said that it was just the size of the cheese curd, this cannot possibly be true). Sorry for those three minutes I just wasted of your time in which I salivated about mashed potatoes but the picture really doesn’t do them justice. Man those were some exceptional mashed potatoes.

PS – When the mac and cheese was finished, Matt chugged the remaining cheese/butter like it was the leftover milk in a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. Video evidence may or may not exist.

Butterscotch milkshake @ Kroll's

Butterscotch milkshake. I think it was the best milkshake I’ve ever had, Raffi thought it was his second best (My second and his first are Delta Diner in Delta, WI – either way, the two are both outstanding and very close).

Final order tally: Four butter cheeseburgers, ribs (with two sides), inferno wings, two orders of cheese curds, a milkshake, seven Spotted Cows, and (not pictured) one order each of chili and cheesy garlic bread. Total tab? $95.08. I love Wisconsin.

Saturday

8:00 AM - After closing Anduzzi’s the night before and getting a less-than-ideal three hours of sleep, I gotta do the two-mile walk from Scott’s hotel (he had an extra bed Friday night because his sister wasn’t getting there till Saturday). The painful 45-minute walk down Oneida really feels like the calm before a storm. The streets are empty but there’s a discernible buzz in the air that 70,000 people are about to descend upon the city.

9:00 – I actually force myself to work out (I am, after all, trying to watch my figure) and it is even more excruciating than you would imagine. For more reasons than just the three hours of sleep and subsequent walk-of-shame-without-having-gotten-to-have-the-good-part-first, this was exquisite torture: the exercise room was 80 degrees, there was no remote for the TV, the elliptical wasn’t plugged in so I couldn’t chart my time or change the resistance (although the resistance on the base mode was right around where I would have set it to), I didn’t have a water bottle, the water fountain had warm water which triggered a gag reflex (so it was that or extreme dehydration), my towel kept falling off the handle bars, and the sweat gushing out of me tasted and felt like normal sweat combined with the recycled red meat, dairy, Spotted Cow, and Maker’s Mark that I was trying to at least partly purge from my body (it wasn’t as enjoyable the second time through).

Noon: Curly’s Pub inside Lambeau. Had a bad experience with our pulled buffalo chicken sandwiches (there was either too much hot sauce or it had gone bad) but they comped that part of the meal and were very apologetic (Raffi and I NEVER complain about food but these were egregious). The below, though, more than made up for it:

Cheese Curds @ Curly's Pub

Cheese curds. ‘Nuff said. Best of the weekend, beating out the curds at Kroll’s, Stadium View, and inside Lambeau. I stilllll think the cheese curds at Will’s Northwoods Inn are better but it’s splitting hairs.

Pretzel Bites @ Curly's Pub

Soft, buttery, oven-fresh pretzel bites accompanied by a warm homemade beer cheese dipping sauce. Third collective “Oh my God” moment (after the mashed potatoes and milk shake) of the weekend so far. I would need to be a FAR better writer to describe with words how exceptional these were. Not pictured: the six or seven (who’s counting when there’s free refills?) Diet Cokes that transformed me from a zombie into a person during this meal.

1:00 PM - Packers Hall of Fame. Deserves its own entry and will likely get it on a future trip. Unbelievable to see video, pictoral, and written evidence as well as memorabilia take us extensively through Packers history. Not that I needed it or wasn’t already, but the inspiration drawn from walking through these halls made me PSYCHED to head into Lambeau for the Giants game. All football fans need to carve out a few hours for this if they ever make it to Green Bay and every Packers fan needs to put it on his/her IMMEDIATE to-do list. A small sample of the awesomeness below:

JFK

Letter from JFK to Vince Lombardi.

Lambeau Leap

Simulating the Lambeau Leap with Matt and Raffi. Mine was, um, not graceful. We were able to get the picture in JUST before the guard asked us to get down (if you enlarge the picture, we were in flagrant violation of the sign to the right of Matt).

Lombardi Trophies

With Matt, Raffi, and Hisham in front of the Packers’ four Lombardi trophies. Not something you get to see every day.

3:00 – Now additionally joined by my friend Nicole, the next 11 hours of our lives will be spent at Stadium View. Crowd was cheering loud for 49ers-Saints which was an unbelievable game, Patriots-Broncos was very meh. Redefining consumer surplus, 100 oz. towers of Spotted Cow were $17.50. Still mostly full from lunch, we split an appetizer sampler (in order of awesomeness: chicken tenders, mozzarella sticks, cheese curds, jalapeño poppers, french fries) and chili with extra, extra cheese (as you can see below, it was made-to-order – our server Lindsey hooked us up).

Sampler platter @ Stadium View
Chili @ Stadium View

7:00 – Jerry Kramer is signing autographs in the adjacent room. I had written a review of his amazing book, Instant Replay, about a month ago and introduced myself. He and his daughter immediately recognized me from it when I introduced myself and were extremely thankful and complimentary. Writing is a pretty solitary undertaking and there are untold amounts of self-doubt when I’m struggling for ideas so being praised effusively by a Packers legend who co-wrote an incredible diary that was one of the best-selling sports books of all-time means more to me than I can say. I’m approaching transcendent levels of happiness at this point but the night is only going to get better.

11:00  - Been at Stadium View for eight hours but closing it is an inevitability. The DJ in the main room shamefully panders to Giants fans by playing “New York, New York” (there’s a fine line between hospitality and traitorous behavior…) and it’s time to check out the band playing in the other room. And this band is AWESOME. Called Shaker and the Egg, it is a swing/funk band that is playing a great mix of original music and flawlessly executed covers. Although the band has been playing for a little while, Nicole and I are the first out on the dance floor and we’re conspicuously alone out there for a few songs. They play Superstition, Play that Funky Music, Billie Jean, and Come on Eileen as the dance floor starts to fill in.

I lose it when they cover my old summer camp’s “Wannado Night” song, It’s Your Thing. CHEERS TO RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW!!!! The 2-mile walk back is more enjoyable than it had been 18 hours prior.

Sunday

Noon - Raffi and Hisham had headed back to Milwaukee on Saturday night so Nicole, Matt, and I head towards Lambeau. After a brief stop at Stadium View, we head to a small tailgate a block off Lombardi where Matt’s stepfather Lenny, Lenny’s friend Dave, and Dave’s son Nick–all in from Kenosha–have set up shop. “Don’t get me wrong. I love burgers and brats but I’m sick of them and wanted to do something a little different,” Lenny, who endearingly reminds me of The Dude because he has a thick beard, speaks with similar intonation and carries himself with a care-free, go-with-the-flow demeanor, says. If only he were wearing a robe. Here’s what he meant:
Venison!

Marinated, backstrap venison. Nick hunted and butchered the deer and had marinated the meat with Sweet Baby Ray’s, steak sauce, Frank’s Red Hot, and three or four other things that I’ve since forgotten (even though I asked him to repeat it two or three times expressly so I would remember right now) the night before. This was an especially special treat. Guns and hunting get a bad rap among people such as myself but this meal was an example of what many well-intentioned hunters fight so vociferously to preserve. On a weekend filled with gluttonous eating, this venison stood head and shoulders above all else in flavor, texture, and unique Wisconsin cultureness*.

*Not a real word but should be

We also ate seasoned flank steak fajitas from the grill.

2:30 – Very weirdly, tickets are available in abundance for face value outside. If you hold out, you could probably get into a home playoff game for the defending Super Bowl champions who went 15-1 for less than 100 bucks. It seems like this should be in more demand and I’m still struggling to figure out why this was the case, especially since there were at least 5,000 Giants fans inside (during the last five minutes of the game, they filled the lower level between the 25-yard lines on one side of the field and this was not all of them). As I said, very weird. Bad omen in retrospect. I head in with Nicole.

3:00 - Into Lambeau. Such a special privilege to be in the sacred grounds for my first home Packers playoff game. Incalculable amount of thanks to family friend and regular reader Rob for the gracious generosity; every time but two that I have ever been to Lambeau, it has been because of Rob. Bad results which I will detail extensively in a follow-up post but that doesn’t change how much I cherish every single moment spent in Lambeau Field. It’s one of two places (the other being my aforementioned summer camp) that makes me feel spiritually charged every moment I’m there.

Temperature: 34 degrees. Feels like: 70 (because of the layers, proximity to others, and strongly shining sun. View from the seats before kickoff.

Lambeau

6:30 – Heartbroken but I am able to maintain the perspective that this has been a wonderful two seasons. I’m struggling to make sense of how the Packers played so poorly and am mind-boggled as I continue to retroactively piece it all together. The drops, the fumbles, the missed tackles, the hail mary. As these keep compounding in my memory, it’s astonishing that the Packers were only down a touchdown with 10 minutes to play. I pick up a beef stick/colby jack cheese package and a bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups to eat away my sorrow with and we meet up with Matt, Lenny, Nick, and Dave for another steak fajita. We’re all shellshocked and still trying to figure out how and why.

7:30 – Head to Kroll’s with Nicole. The eating didn’t make me feel any better; I feel rudderless and am still in disbelief that there will not be another Packers game forever until mid-September. Eight months; an extended timeframe where I’m going to have to talk myself into the Olympics and baseball. Things start to look a little up, though. I find a $20 bill on the ground. Was that from Poppy and Granny as a small token to keep my head up? God? The bourbon fairy? Anyways, it’s the little things…

I ask one of the men behind the bar who looks like he’d know–I mean that nicely–where the best place in Green Bay to get breakfast tomorrow will be. “The Pancake Place on Military Ave.” he says confidently with less than a second of hesitation. Suffice to say that would happen and we would not be let down.

Breakfast with Nicole at The Pancake Place in Green Bay before a relatively painless 3.5-hour drive back to Chicago:
Breakfast @ The Pancake Place

 

Country fried steak (two extra large eggs with a breaded beef fritter smothered in sausage gravy), benedict stuffed hash browns (two eggs with grilled diced ham stuffed between hash browns and smothered with rich hollandaise sauce), and beer cheese soup. Everything was quite good but the country fried steak was exceptional.

Somehow, I only gained 2.3 pounds between when I left my house on Friday and returned Monday. Holler. The fun part of this is over, time to get deep into the misery.

 

 

 


January 13, 2012

Week 19 NFL Picks

No football-related introduction but I will have you know that I just spent a half hour reconciling our stats from the regular season. Because I promised. And I was genuinely interested in the final results. Guess what: I BEAT ASIF BY THREE GAMES!!!! It came down to the final week of the season and I now regret not making some lofty bet on our season results.

Also, I came two games away from achieving the lofty 55% success rate. This is the benchmark for a successful gambling rate because the casino takes 10% of your bet, known as the VIG, if you win. Therefore, if you win 55% of your bets, you profit. I would say that I was handicapped by having to pick games that I wouldn’t have bet on but anecdotally I probably did better on these than I did on ones where I had conviction. It still feels good to go 20 games over .500 on a 247-game sample size (removing the nine ties from the equation).

Past records:

Ryan:
Regular Season: 134-113-9
Playoffs: 3-1

Asif:
Regular season: 131-116-9
Playoffs: 2-2

New Orleans (-3.5) @ San Francisco

Ryan: This game too obviously screams New Orleans for my liking. The 49ers essentially wrapped up the NFC West in Week 4*, had a bunch of games that didn’t require urgency, and acted a little bit accordingly. Down the stretch, they dropped a hard-fought game in Baltimore, lost a two-score lead late to Arizona, and beat Seattle and St. Louis by less than they probably should have.

*slight exaggeration

Bill Barnwell wrote an excellent preview of this game on Grantland, and I won’t steal too much of it but suffice to say that the Saints are MUCH better at home than on the road; they lost to the Bucs and Rams away from the Superdome. Starting Week 6, the Bucs and Rams were a combined 3-20, with two of those three wins coming against the Saints.

Drew Brees has an unbelievably fast release. Sometimes, it defies what I thought I knew about the laws of physics that Marques Colston is 12 yards down the field approximately half a second after the snap when Brees throws the ball. Part of the danger in getting rid of the ball this quickly, though, is that Brees throws a lot more interceptions than, say, Brady and Rodgers; in the past two seasons Brees has thrown 36 INTs while Rodgers has thrown 17 and Brady has thrown 16. The Lions dropped two or three interceptions last week and I expect the 49ers to make more of their opportunities.

The Saints gave up over 100 yards rushing in 10 of their 16 regular season games while the 49ers ran for over 100 in 10 of their 16 match-ups. Frank Gore has been banged up but he had the extra week off to recover. The 49ers will play ball control, limit the amount of Saints possessions, and score enough to keep the game close.

Basically, I think that the Saints are a little bit overrated while the 49ers are comparatively underrated. Semi-bold pick: 49ers cover and win outright.

Asif: The Saints are much better in the dome as Ryan says, but I’m not convinced that the 49ers are actually that good. Their most impressive win to date was against a hobbled Steelers team in Week 15. Since then they’ve had a 2-point win in Seattle, and a 7-point win in St. Louis. Color me unimpressed. Meanwhile, the Saints have steamrolled every opponent that they’ve played since narrowly beating Atlanta in Week 10–that’s six straight wins by at least 14 points, including wins in Detroit and Atlanta. So yeah, I’m taking the Saints.

Denver @ New England (-13.5)

Ryan: It’s been pretty impressive that Bill Belichick was able to cobble together this Patriots roster to go 13-3, winning their last eight, this season. This is only slight less impressive when considering that the Patriots didn’t beat any teams that finished the regular season over .500.

The Patriots and Packers had similar defensive models this season–bend, break sometimes, and force a lot of turnovers. They were the worst two teams in terms of passing yards given up (Packers gave up 4,796; the Patriots 4,703) but the top two in interceptions (Packers had 31; the Patriots 23). For both teams, this mode of defense makes sense because it creates extra possessions for their explosive offenses. That the Patriots had so many injuries and other roster turmoil in their secondary only made this strategy more advantageous.

New England’s foremost concern this week is its rushing defense. The Patriots’ rush defense was right around league average this season, giving up 117.1 yards per game. Against the Broncos in Week 15, though, it gave up 252 yards on the ground as Tebow, Lance Ball, Willis McGahee, and Jeremiah Johnson combined for more than eight yards per carry. Last week, the Steelers kept Troy Polamalu in the box to guard against the run and Tebow was able to beat the single coverage with regularity. If he is able to sustain that accuracy, the Patriots will have to pick their poison. Their best defense may need to be their outstanding offense.

The aforementioned Week 15 match-up was closer than the 41-23 Patriots victory would indicate. I think this spread is just a little bit too high. Broncos cover.

Asif: Meh, I’m not buying another Tebow miracle. The deep throws against the Steelers were pretty, but he still was horrendously inaccurate for the most part (although it was fun to watch Tebow hilariously miss a receiver on an out route in the 1st quarter only to have Phil Simms to deem it a “nice throwaway”).. It’s hard to predict a similar performance in a second straight week. As for the Week 15 match-up, I watched it end-to-end and after the first quarter it was just as lopsided as the score would suggest. The Broncos simply didn’t have an answer for all of the Patriots’ weapons, they made a concerted effort to keep Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski in check and ended up getting burned for 129 yards by Aaron Hernandez. Nothing’s really changed about either team since that game, so the Broncos will likely have to “pick their poison,” as Ryan put it, again. I have a hard time seeing the Patriots lose this one.

Still, the spread is awfully high. I have a feeling I’ll regret this, but Broncos cover.

Houston @ Baltimore (-7.5)

Ryan: This game is the least compelling of the weekend but I’d still be kind of bummed that other circumstances are keeping me from watching most of the second half of this game if said circumstances were anything beside the fact that I’M GOING TO LAMBEAU FIELD!!!!

As Asif alludes to below, Flacco got a little hurt that he hasn’t been given the Tebow white glove treatment as a league average quarterback who happens to play for a team with an outstanding defense and running game. If he wants more praise, he should stop missing receivers on routes that top-10 quarterbacks could hit in their sleep. Well, that or he could wear his religion on his sleeve, pants, helmet, and cleats. It’s probably too late for that behavior to be considered sincere, though.

Although the Ravens beat the still-quarterbacked-by-Matt-Schaub Texans 29-14 in Week 6, I’m still unconvinced that they are that good. They will probably win this game but I don’t trust them with a line this high. Texans cover.

Asif: Apparently Joe Flacco is all butthurt that everyone wants to talk about the great QBs remaining in the playoffs (Rodgers, Brady, Brees, Manning) and no one’s giving him his due for being the definition of a replacement level NFL starter. In semi-related news, I could care less about this game. I guess it would be nice if the Texans won, but does anyone really care? This AFC playoff slate is terrible. Ravens cover.

NY Giants @ Green Bay (-7.5)

Ryan: It’s pretty miraculous how little attention is being paid to the 15-1, defending Super Bowl Champion Packers coming into this weekend. While Tebow was mentioned 160 times in a one-hour SportsCenter yesterday, it’s gone comparatively under the radar that the Packers have won 21 of their last 22, a magical run that started with a 45-17 shellacking of the Giants in a de facto playoff game Week 16 last season.

There have been a lot of comparisons of this game to the 2007 NFC Championship Game (a game that still causes me great anguish when it runs on ESPN Classic–I can never bring myself to look away and still shudder every time Favre throws a perfect pass to Corey Webster) but those similarities really don’t do anything to cause me to think that a similar result will occur this Sunday. This year’s Packers team would be favored over the 2007 Packers by a touchdown on a neutral field (if it were to exist in a plane of the same alternate reality that would allow teams from different seasons to play each other…2007 Favre would definitely get picked off at least once by 2011 Woodson). The Packers are into this and the fact that so many people are counting them out against the Giants this week will only further their motivation.

I have seen very few people pick the Packers against the spread this week. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve seen it at all. When the public is so united behind one team, give me the house’s side. Packers cover.

Asif: The early line in this game was set at 9 points in a blatant attempt to get people to bet on the Giants. Over the course of the past month my enthusiasm about this latest incarnation of the Giants has gradually built from complete dismay (following their Week 15 loss to the Redskins) to boundless enthusiasm heading into this Sunday’s game. So screw it, I’m going with my guys, Giants cover.


January 11, 2012

Miscellaneous Football Thoughts

Been struggling a little bit this week with ideas for longer columns but have some quick thoughts from last week’s NFL Playoffs and the BCS Championship Game. Here goes:

Alabama-LSU

In combining talent and discipline, Alabama had the best college defense that I have ever seen or heard of this season. Every time I watched them play, I was astounded at how ballcarriers were tackled on the first hit, holes were closed at ludicrous speed, and players stayed in their lanes to prevent big plays. Miami’s defenses of the late ’90s and early ’00s – with (not all at the same time, but man…) Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Vince Wilfork, Jonathan Vilma, Duane Starks, Philip Buchanan, and Sean Taylor – were probably more talented than Alabama’s D. However, the gap in discipline between the two, in Alabama’s favor, was in my opinion greater than the talent discrepancy.

In 13 games this season, Alabama gave up 103 points; the most it gave up was 21 and the 2nd-most was 14, which happened twice. In 10 of their 13 games, they held their opponents to 11 points or less, pitching three shutouts including that of LSU in the BCS Championship Game. I’m very interested in looking back on this roster in 3-5 years to see how many NFL starters played on this unit.

Relatedly, Nick Saban just won his third title in seven years (nine total but two were spent in the NFL). Personally, I can’t stand Saban. I think he’s emotionless, a liar, a bully, and completely in it for himself. But, he’s the best in his generation in an extremely competitive profession. As Colin Cowherd once said, professional greatness often comes with emotional imbalance. See Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Vincent Van Gogh, Jerry West, Brett Favre, Barry Bonds, Mickey Mantle, Kurt Cobain, and Floyd Mayweather to name just a few. If you are an achievement outlier, there is often a good amount of ruthlessness and/or egomania that serves as fuel for the relentless grind along the way. And if I were an Alabama fan, I’d definitely think the ends justify the means.

If I had to guess, Nick Saban will coach for about 10 more years, win three more national championships, and go down in history as the greatest college football coach of all-time. Even if Saban were “only” to win two more and find himself one behind Bear Bryant’s six, I would still argue that Saban was better. With the proliferation of football in America, there are so many more viable programs than there were 30-50 years ago that, even if not reasonably able to compete for a national championship, are able to knock contenders off on their best day (as Iowa State did to Oklahoma State this season). It is much more difficult to win a national title in 2012 than it was in 1961-1979.

Split National Title?

There was an idea making the rounds that if Alabama narrowly edged out LSU (as it turns out, they left no doubt), the two teams should split the national title. This is stupid. When the Patriots went 18-1 but lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl in 2007-2008, not even Tommy from Quinzee would have suggested that they split the championship. This was the national title game, LSU knew what was at stake, and having the teams split the national championship game would be a farce.

Unrelatedly, this would be my plan for a college football playoff, which appears to be headed towards a final four next year–a good start. I would make a six-team playoff with no automatic qualifiers, based on a widely debated and transparent formula split between public votes and statistics. Games played on the home field of the higher seed until the national championship game, which would be on a neutral field rotating between the four current BCS bowls. We hear so much about SEC speed but wouldn’t it be awesome to see Alabama or Arkansas have to go into Ann Arbor, Columbus, or Madison and win in December? And vice versa?

Giving two teams byes and subsequent home games would maintain the importance of the regular season–everyone knows how significant these are in the NFL season and fights for them. I imagine it’ll never happen.

Broncos-Steelers

Tim Tebow had a great game on Sunday but he almost cost the Broncos the win. With about two minutes left in the fourth quarter and the game tied at 23-23, the Broncos faced 3rd-and-8 from their own 35. Tebow missed a wide open Demaryius Thomas on a pattern that, if converted, would have given the Broncos a chance to keep moving towards field goal range while most likely keeping the ball out of Ben Roethlisberger’s hands until overtime at the worst. NFL starting quarterbacks have to make that throw. At least 25 of 32 opening day starters complete it for a first down.

But, as Tebow has done on many of his incompletions this season, he missed terribly. On the ensuing Steelers drive, the Broncos’ defense bent but didn’t break; with a 1st-and-10 at the Broncos 45, jussssst out of Mile High field goal range, Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass and was sacked for an 11-yard loss by Elvis Dumervil. The Steelers would not get back to that line scrimmage on the rest of their drive. The Broncos won the coin flip and Tebow and Thomas performed a miracle on the first play.

And the Tebow hype machine keeps churning. The Jesus stuff can be annoying and overbearing but at least it’s sincere–Tebow has been under the public eye, and therefore extreme media scrutiny, for the past five years and has not had a single moral misstep. He practices what he preaches, is outworked by none, leads by example, and wins football games in an increasing sample size. The biggest issue that die hard football fans have with the Tebow hype is that anyone who credits him universally for his team’s success has simply not been watching the games. If the Steelers had continued their drive and kicked the game-winning field goal, which felt inevitable before the Dumervil sack, Tebow’s disastrous incompletion would have loomed large. Weirdly, though, Tebow’s overtime pass and intangible leadership qualities have been the predominant story while Dumervil’s sack and defense’s overall excellence as a unit both in the Steelers game and since Tebow took over as starter, are footnotes in the narrative.

I’ve been saying since John Fox started to let Tebow run the option that the Broncos’ game plan is sustainable. Play ball control, shortening the game with a strong rushing attack. Limit the other team’s passing game with a strong pass rush from Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil and shutdown corner play from the ageless Champ Bailey. Keep the game close. Unleash the Tebow option attack in full throttle in the fourth when the opposing defense is worn down. Win late. Tebow might be the most important piece of this puzzle by a plurality but it is not a majority.

I like Tebow and have been rooting for him since I won a $5 bet with my roommate that he’d be a first round pick. It’s always refreshing to see so many self-indulgent sportswriters be so conspicuously wrong. Tebow deserves a lot of credit for the team’s turnaround but he still has lots of room for improvement. To no fault of his own, not enough accolades have been given to his team’s offensive line and overall defense. If you put Tebow on the Colts this season, perhaps they would have gone 5-11 but probably no better and possibly worse. Just once, I’d like to see him thank his defense for its help in his success before he thanks Jesus.

Giants-Falcons

More on the Giants in Friday’s picks but one of the more important storylines from this game is what it said about the Falcons, who are in an odd position in NFL No Man’s Land. With their current core, they can beat enough bad teams to make the playoffs some (most?) years but they lack ability necessary for the big push to make or win a Super Bowl. What can they do about it? They can’t fire Mike Smith, who is 43-21 in four regular seasons but 0-3 in the playoffs. They can’t get rid of Matt Ryan, the starter in all but two of those games, who is on the cusp of being a top-10 quarterback but didn’t progress from last year to the extent that many were expecting.

I’m not quite sure how I would address the Falcons’ systemic issues–and it will be difficult to do so without bottoming out–but I would start with trying to add players on the offensive and defensive line, both of which were abused by the Giants’ fronts. It might be in the long-term best interest of the Falcons to miss the playoffs next year, get a high draft pick, and rebuild their roster. The goal in the NFL is to win Super Bowl championships and, as presently assembled, their ceiling is a game or two lower.

Saints-Lions

In order to beat a team that is much better than you are, you have to play a perfect game. You have to capitalize on all your opportunities, sustain momentum through halftime lull, and avoid falling behind by more than one score. For a little while, it looked like the Lions would hang with the Saints, but they failed to make the most of the chances they were given. The Lions got no points off of the Saints’ two turnovers and dropped a couple other potential interceptions. And the Saints would eventually pull away.

Going forward, though, I’m scared of the Lions. This year, Matthew Stafford’s play was only surpassed by Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady (OK company) and, if he can stay healthy, he and the Lions will only improve. Even though the Packers were able to beat them in Week 17 with their back-ups, nobody is going to want to play them next season.

Bengals-Texans

Not a particularly exciting game. I got plenty of predictions wrong (see 49ers, San Francisco), but I’d like to point you to my pre-season column calling the Texans my NFL sleeper. The Wade Philips table I spent over an hour putting together at a Starbucks with slow internet is particularly awesome and prescient. The JJ Watt call was also nice. There was a great NY Times profile of him today. Basically, he’s Tim Tebow except that he encountered much more adversity on his path to the pros and he isn’t overbearing about God.


Is it Friday/Saturday/Sunday yet?

Nope. But we’re getting there.

January 6, 2012

Week 18 NFL Picks

I will not complain about actual NFL games. I will not complain about actual NFL games. I will not complain about actual NFL games.This has been going through my head since this weekend’s playoff match-ups materialized. Every time I look at them and think that they are boring, uninteresting games, I remember how few of them there are left and what I would give for this slate in mid-July. I then embody my fifth grade science teacher and make myself say the opening sentences in my head until I’ve learned my lesson and am properly appreciative.

(Saying it in my head is a lot less arduous, though, than the sentences he would make us write. I’m not quite sure how I remember this 25 years later but one of them was “Talking in the classroom wastes my time and other students’ time.” His sentences were cruel and unusual punishment; they would go more than one line so you couldn’t do that thing where you write the same word all the way down the page instead of writing the sentences in conventional fashion. On other teachers’ sentences, the straight-down method was dominant.)

After this weekend, there’s only seven NFL games left. Then, the deep dark offseason. While this year won’t be shrouded in the looming possibility of a Lockout (no football? noooooooooooooooooooooooooo), we will still invariably force ourselves to watch things that pale in comparison to football. Like, this year we get the Summer Olympics and I’m probably going to watch swimming. Ugh. Can you even imagine what the ratings for some of these events would be if they had to go head-to-head with an NFL Sunday? And don’t even get me started on baseball. It’s looking increasingly likely that the Cubs are going to get their affairs turned around which is awful news for me and my desire to get into Wrigley for 5 bucks in the 3rd inning on a nice day.

So, yeah, I’m obviously going to watch every minute of this playoff weekend (although I might miss the first quarter of Bengals-Texans due to circumstances beyond my control), potentially even convincing myself that it will be glorious. I can’t bear the thought of football going away forever until September.

On to the picks, which as always, are written with my friend Asif from Uninformed Commentary.

Still don’t have our records reconciled. I promise to figure this out before next week’s picks.

Cincinnati @ Houston (-3)

Ryan: While it wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be–the NFC West dramatically beat expectations down the stretch–the Bengals still had a pretty easy schedule. I would have pointed out that they also got to play the AFC South but then I remembered that the Texans got to play everyone in the AFC South (besides themselves of course) twice.

To some degree, I think that the Texans have been playing possum for the past few weeks because they really haven’t had anything to play for. While it’s a precarious situation when a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs before starts messing with the on/off switch, these players knew they had nothing to play for and acted accordingly. It’s human nature and I have a hard time believing I would behave in a different way in their collective shoes.

When these teams met Week 14, Owen Daniels carved up the Bengals secondary (7 catches for 100 yards) and the Texans ended up taking the game 20-19. I think that the Texans are a little bit better than we think and that the Bengals, who looked terrible in a must-win game against the Ravens last week, are a little worse than we think. We see a steady dose of Arian Foster and Ben Tate and the Texans cover.

Asif: Are we allowed to have a playoff Derp Bowl? I’m going to say no, but the fact that there’s a slight chance that we might see Jake Delhomme in this game makes me hesitate a little. Easily the least compelling match-up of the weekend.

One of the least talked about storylines of this season has been the Bengals stunning franchise turn towards competence. My friend Alex and I chatted a little about this during the week, but Mike Brown may actually deserve Executive of the Year honors for the job he did in drafting AJ Green and Andy Dalton and bilking the Raiders in the Carson Palmer deal. Of course, it’ll take more than a couple of nice deals for Bengals fans to forgive Brown for years of hamstringing the franchise with his cheapness. That said, the Bengals may be competitive for a long time now. They’ve got a solid young talent base and the new salary floor and rookie wage scale should mitigate Brown’s penny pinching somewhat. At the same time, Marvin Lewis has quietly become one of the most competent coaches in the NFL. Who saw that coming?

I get the feeling that the Bengals want this more than Houston, who seem just happy to be in the playoffs. Cincinnati covers.

Detroit @ New Orleans (-10.5)

Ryan: This game is going to be different from the last time around because the Lions are in a different place as a football team. When New Orleans beat Detroit 31-17 in Week 13 (my memory hadn’t processed it as being nearly that close…weird), the Lions had lost four of six and were reeling from the NDonkey Kong Suh suspension. They came out and fought the next three weeks, beating the Vikings, Raiders, and Chargers before losing to the Packers’ back-ups.

As I said last week, the Saints very well may have been the best team in football over the second half of the season. Their last eight games–all wins–they outscored their opponents 287-150, outgaining them by an average of nearly 100 (99.25 to be exact) yards per game. Their offense is methodical. Their defense, not quite so much.

Matthew Stafford’s brilliant season (5,038 yards, 41 TDs, 16 INTs) has been a little bit overshadowed because Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady, who are already entrenched as household names, also had outstanding seasons. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s the most yards and TD passes by a QB who didn’t make the Pro Bowl by a substantial margin. Stafford kept this team together and, under his leadership, the Lions rebounded when things looked bleak. New Orleans probably takes the game but Detroit doesn’t go quietly. Lions cover.

Asif: The Saints are invincible in the dome. While the Lions are certainly capable of putting up points themselves, their pass defense got exposed by the Packers last week. Saints cover.

Atlanta @ NY Giants (-3)

Ryan: The We Believe in Ourselves Theory is in full swing! Kindly disregard the Giants’ 23-10 loss to the Redskins in Week 15 and roll with it!

The Falcons are good enough to beat up on bad teams but struggled this year against playoff-caliber opponents. They had five games against playoff teams (Packers, Lions, Saints, Texans, Saints) and went 1-4 in them.

While the Giants have been bi-polar this season, the Falcons have been steady and consistent. The variance on this game depends entirely on which Giants team shows up and, gun to my head, I think it’s going to be the good version. Giants cover.

Asif: The NFC match-ups this week are miles better than the AFC games. This is the best one of the week, featuring two teams with explosive passing offenses and flaws in every other facet of the game. What tips it for me is the Giants’ suddenly reinvigorated pass rush. Gotta go with my guys. Giants cover.

Pittsburgh (-8.5) @ Denver

Ryan: If it wasn’t enough of a gift for the Broncos to back into the playoffs on the 3rd tiebreaker over the Raiders and Chargers, they get the Steelers–a vastly superior opponent when healthy–when they’re riddled with injuries. Rashard Mendenhall, who I’m convinced is league average or slightly worse but is nonetheless the starting back, is out for the season with a torn ACL. Ryan Clark can’t play in Denver because of a blood disorder. Maurkice Pouncey and Ben Roethlisberger are banged up. I’m pretty sure that Roethlisberger (new nickname: Mr. Potatohead) is held together by paper clips and rubber bands at this point but somehow hasn’t broken.

The Broncos’ putridity the past three weeks as Tim Tebow has thrown for 343 yards (total! Matt Flynn may have done that in a half last week!) notwithstanding, I still feel like their running game and pass rush (with an immobile Roethlisberger) are enough to keep the game close. Maybe even close enough to steal with some Tebow Magic. I think the Steelers win but the Broncos cover.

Asif: It’s over for Tim Tebow. Defenses have figured out that if you play man coverage and make sure that your defensive ends don’t over-pursue, Tebow can’t do anything. In college, Tebow was perfectly capable of trucking linebackers for runs up the middle. In the pros, the guys at the second level are much bigger and stronger and he needs to get to the edge to be an effective runner. The Steelers bring a pretty complicated blitz scheme and tackle well, and there’s no evidence that Tebow is capable of beating a team like that at this point. Pittsburgh covers.


January 5, 2012

Deadspin and Me…

On Deadspin, AJ Daulerio, Will Leitch, Drew Magary, and Tommy Craggs and how they have shaped me as a reader and writer

I was a pretty early–though not the earliest–Deadspin reader. I was a freshman at Wisconsin, read a brief blurb about it in Sports Illustrated, checked it out, and have visited it multiple times a day, every day that I have been on a computer ever since.

In writing from the disenfranchised, but intelligent, fan’s perspective Will Leitch had curated it in such a way that it was the first web site that I ever felt spoke to me. As it has evolved, Deadspin has impacted how I have read and written about sports to a greater degree in aggregate than any other media outlet (but it has been Bill Simmons more than any other individual writer. That’s a whole other column). Leitch’s writing was outstanding and evocative. Since moving on to New York Magazine, his talent as an essayist has shined through as he no longer produced upwards of 20 posts per day (see his column from last winter on what the Yankees should do with Derek Jeter for an example).

Starting with the great Outkick The Coverage proprietor and former briefly tenured Deadspin writer Clay Travis’s roast, we are going to see a series of posts, and therefore takes on outgoing Deadspin editor AJ Daulerio and the broader meaning of his 3.5 year (It’s been that long?!) tenure in the position as Leitch’s successor.

***

The journalistic ethics that I naturally have (but am untrained in) were hesitantly OK with Leitch’s publishing pictures of Matt Leinart drinking with hot girls. However, they were compromised first when AJ Daulerio wrote about Stuart Scott’s attempted infidelity from an over-the-shoulder glimpse of his phone screen and, years later, Brett Favre’s sexts to Jenn Sterger. I felt that they violated a sense of privacy that the subjects (NOT victims) were entitled too. But I clicked on the stories. I could tell what the stories would be about from the headlines and I never abided by my personal principles and refrained from clicking.

And I never doubted that Daulerio’s risque, reputation-damaging news breaks were true. It was an odd dichotomy that made me question how I felt about fairness. Did the fact that I trusted Daulerio to be completely honest justify his destroying the life of a public figure if he/she had done something immoral and/or newsworthy in private? Where should the line be drawn and what if Daulerio got something wrong? Even if he was a neutral, unbiased arbiter of what was fair and what was not, what would happen if similar power fell into the wrong hands? What would stop a remorseless sociopath from attaining this status on the internet as Rush Limbaugh has done on AM radio?

When Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger erupted on then-editor Will Leitch in his infamous meltdown on Costas Now (Braylon Edwards’ presence isn’t any less unintentionally funny four years later), he was projecting on Deadspin’s evolution under Daulerio’s leadership and other gossip sites have become as opposed to the comparatively tame Leitch Deadspin.

Dan LeBatard, who has spoken a lot about these issues on his radio show, various podcasts, and his column, worries about the next step in gossip journalism, which in the excerpted passage (the clickthrough leads to a broken Miami Herald link and I can’t find the original column) expresses his fears that this is headed towards a gay professional athlete being outed against his will:

One of the first orders of business at TMZ Sports, rest assured, will be to out a gay male athlete. It is the only boundary left to cross. It will either wreck that athlete’s life or make him the next Jackie Robinson or maybe both.

That’s a pretty horrible thing to do to someone against their will, obviously.

But an outraged America will punish the behavior by showering it with views, dollars and rewards.

All said, though, Daulerio doesn’t just traffic in gossip. He has built a stable of great writers including Luke O’Brien, Barry Petchesky, Emma Carmichael, and Jack Dickey whose work alternate between short- and long-form, original content and responses. Drew Magary, the lone holdover from the Leitch regime, writes unsurpassed satire coupled with brilliant insight and perspective (like Simmons, Magary is a deserving subject of an entire column) and has seen his content improve exponentially over the past few years. His mailbag, Jamboroo, and Balls Deep columns are must-read.

Tommy Craggs, who is taking over as editor-in-chief, is a pitbull who eviscerates corrupt and inept powers-that-be from such a strongly researched and argued vantage that it is impossible to finish one of his columns and disagree (example: his recent epic takedown of Skip Bayless). Long-form freelance profiles such as Alex Belth’s outstanding tribute to George Kimball appear from time to time and are of the utmost quality.

Whatever the format, a post on Deadspin is more likely to be well-written, informative, and interesting than something posted anywhere else on the internet or in print. Its writers evoke thought and continually improve. As such, if there was any editor who I know of that I would trust to develop me as a writer in terms of the quality of the content I provide and maximize readership, it would be AJ Daulerio.

In his aforementioned roast, Travis writes that he did not enjoy working for Deadspin (and that the feeling was mutual) but nevertheless notes:

There will be a lot of dick pic jokes in the next couple of days, but that misses A.J.’s real strength (although he knows penises better than just about anyone): He put Deadspin on a path to churn out more original content on a daily basis than the vast majority of “mainstream” Internet sites. A.J. saw that the web 2.0 template couldn’t last for long; eventually you had to break news and provide compelling original content to keep the pageview meter ticking upward.

I still don’t feel completely comfortable with where this is all going but I have developed a large amount of trust in Daulerio’s reporting. He has a preternatural sense of what is interesting and drives content in that direction. At Gawker, he will shift from curating the newsworthiness (which of course will often be the private transgressions) of athletes to that of celebrities, social elites, and, I can only hope, politicians. I’ll be shocked and appalled by what is written but my outrage won’t outweigh the extent to which I’m interested and informed. I’ll read. And I certainly won’t be alone. And I’d still love to write for Gawker or Deadspin.


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