Saturday, January 31, 2015

Da prediction

This coin of mine, it's taken a beating this week. I keep flipping it. It keeps telling me stuff. It's never the right stuff.

I flip it once, and it comes up heads.


I flip it again, and it comes up tails.


You see my problem.

There's just no reliable way to call Super Bowl XLIX other than to just suck it up and call it, and my inner first grader doesn't want to do it. All week I've been putting it off. All week I've been saying I can't go to school, I have a stomachache or a headache or I feel icky, or there's something wrong with my leg, mom, I can't walk.

You see my problem.

The problem is, these are two teams that do the same things well,  only in different ways. They both have generally unflappable quarterbacks. They both have a robust running game when they choose to call on it. They both have incredibly well-disciplined defenses that stay in their lanes and befuddle offenses and make plays when they are called upon to make plays.

And they're both coached by men who know how to get in an opponent's head, and who count a certain deviousness among their character traits. One a bit more so than the other, clearly.

So who to pick?

I'm tempted to pick the Patriots, even though a victory for the Patriots is a victory for the chronically underhanded. But it's hard for me to see Bill Belichick and Tom Brady losing three straight Super Bowls, too. They've got to win another one eventually, don't they?

And so it's easy to close my eyes and see Belichick almost/sort of/just about crack a smile as he holds the Lombardi Trophy aloft. But, saints preserve us, who wants to see that?

So here's what I think, or what I've decided I think: I think this is gonna come down to defense and the run game, ultimately. I think Julian Edelman will have a big game for the Patriots until he doesn't. I think LaGarrette Blount will be Beast Mode East until the original Beast Mode, Marshawn Lynch, shows him how it's done. I think the Patriots lost their last two Super Bowls because the Giants down seven beat the Patriots O-line, and I think the Seahawks down seven will do the same thing.

They'll get to Brady more than the Patriots will get to Russell Wilson. And if they do, Brady will get frustrated. Because you can frustrate Brady.

I think this is going close -- even though, because everyone thinks that, it probably won't be.

So. Seahawks 24, Patriots 22.

The derision may now commence.


Friday, January 30, 2015

Your Super Bowl moment for today

And no, it's not about Marshawn Lynch talking to the media about why he won't talk to the media.

(I've finally figured out who Beast Mode is, by the way. He's Duane Thomas. Remember? The iconoclastic Cowboys running back wouldn't talk, either, but ran all over the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI. He also issued the single greatest quote in the history of the Big Roman Numeral: "If it's the ultimate game, why are they playing it again next year?")

Anyway ... today's Super Bowl moment is about what you can do if you haven't bought your tickets yet.

Sell your house.

Because right now, the dwindling supply of tickets is going for right around $9,200 a pop. This is considerably higher than the already-absurd $500-$1500 face value, but, of course, face value is only theoretical when it comes to Super Bowl tickets. Scalpers, er, ticket brokers, drive the market for these sorts of events, and the market is up there in why-yes-we-do-summer-in-the-Hamptons territory. Your typical NFL crowd generally skews toward rich elitists -- tickets for a regular season game run into the hundreds even for the lousiest teams in the league -- but the Super Bowl is the province of the one-percenters. Working class stiffs need not apply.

Which is ironic, of course, because it's the working class stiffs -- the beer-and-wings line worker who ritually dons his Aaron Rodgers jersey every Sunday -- who made the NFL the monolith it's become. Now, on the biggest day of the NFL year, they've all but been priced out of  a market they themselves created.

Makes you want to hop in the Wayback Machine and journey back to 1967, when the Packers played the Chiefs in Super Bowl I and the average guy still had access to it.    

 Tickets, after all, were only $12.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Boilers ascending

Squint hard enough and you could see the Combover From Hell over there again, bulldog jaw stuck out its usual mile, jacket discarded, mandibles flapping a mile a second as he implored his Purdue Boilermakers to bleed a little more crimson out of all that crimson.

Indiana vs. Purdue: And step aboard the Wayback Machine, boys and girls, because Wednesday night looked a lot like a Wednesday night from 20 or 30 years ago as much as anything.

It looked like, yes, Gene Keady over there stomping around, combover flying. It looked like Mackey Arena, which gets loud like few places get loud, turning the volume up to full eardrum bleed. And it looked like the arch-enemy, Indiana, going down hard to another Purdue team doing it the old-fashioned way: With defense and want-to.

Keady's lament whenever Purdue lost was always "Why wouldn't you want to play hard?" Well, last night, against an Indiana team that five days ago was tied for the Big Ten lead, this Purdue team had a reply: "We do."

And they did. And it was pure throwback IU-Purdue.

The elegantly sharpshooting Hoosiers came in 5-2 in the conference and presumably the better team, and left in sandwich bags, ground down 83-67. They shot 37.9 percent and 4-of-19 from beyond the arc, where they will either live or die this season. With the Purdues relentlessly in their grill, they made just nine baskets in the first 23 minutes of the game, went five-and-a-half minutes without one, and were down 19, at 46-27, before the second half had barely begun.

The rest was formality. The rest was Purdue doing what Purdue has almost always done to IU in Mackey, which is spoil a good thing.

And now it bears mentioning that Matt Painter's guys are 5-3 in the Big Ten themselves, and, like Indiana, have found a way to win. Not surprisingly, it's the way Purdue has always won: With defense, grit, some muscle on the low block and a little help from a lot of friends.

Rapheal Davis, the former South Side Archer, led the way Wednesday with 19 points. Bryson Scott, the former Northrop Bruin had 11 and six rebounds. A.J. Hammons, the occasional disappearing act in the paint, had 11 and eight blocks -- the most blocked shots in a game for a Purdue player since Joe Barry Carroll almost 40 years ago.

Speaking of throwbacks.

And, speaking of same, a prediction: Purdue goes to Bloomington for the return match on Feb. 19. Expect Indiana to pound lumps on the Boilers the way the Boilers pounded lumps on the Hoosiers last night.

Because that, too, is how these two once rolled.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Best left unspoken

On a day reserved for strangeness, the strangest thing on Super Bowl Media Day was not the TV reporter who interviewed a pair of puppets. Nor was it the fact that civilians actually paid $28.50 a head to watch media folk in their natural habitat.

No. The strangest thing on Super Bowl Media Day was watching 200 of those media folk crowd around a booth to hear a man say next to nothing.

That was the scene at Marshawn Lynch's station, where the Seahawks' fabled non-communicator Greta Garbo-ed his way through four minutes and 51 seconds before getting up to leave. His only words, repeated in variations over and over: "I'm here so I won't get fined."

Two hundred or so media creatures excitedly tweeted that, or got audio of it, or shot video of it. Then, presumably, they just sort of stared blankly at Lynch as he stared blankly back.

Finally he stood up and left.

Listen, when the going gets weird, the weird go to Media Day. Everyone knows that. But nothing I  personally saw in two of 'em was as weird as that -- not even the Telemundo reporter in Miami who spent the whole of Media Day interviewing players via sock puppet.

That was weird. This was weirder. And weirdest of all, frankly, is the fact that the NFL compelled Lynch to be there in the first place.

I've said it before, and I'll say it until palm trees grow in the Arctic: If Lynch doesn't want to talk, he shouldn't have to talk. There are plenty of other guys who will. And there always will be, even if professional sports in particular have become such a huge engine of industry they don't need the media anymore.

It's a curious thing. At the same time that the NFL has grown beyond whatever value traditional media once held for it, it continues to demand its employees make themselves available to media. The availability is on the NFL's terms, of course, but it is availability. And it happens not because the NFL would suffer if it didn't provide it, but because even corporate monoliths are occasionally susceptible to bad publicity.

 No one wants to be compared to the Kremlin or the North Korea of Kim Jong-Un. So they provide media availability, and fine players who don't go along, to make sure that doesn't happen.

Well. Enough with that charade. Enough with presenting yourself as media friendly, when you really couldn't care less if the media feels befriended or not.

I did the sports deal for almost four decades, and what I noticed across all that time was the more the media pumped up a thing, the less access it got. When I began, college basketball and football locker rooms were open after games, and you didn't have to wade through three layers of flacks to get a one-on-one sitdown with someone. Now a lot of those locker rooms have been closed for years, and getting an interview with the freshman point guard is at times like scheduling face time with Beyonce.

And it's yea worse in many high-end pro sports. When NASCAR first came to Indy, it was perceived as being much more fan and media friendly than IndyCar. Then, with the help of those fans and that media, it blew up into the multi-platform industry it is today. Now it's IndyCar that's often perceived as being more accessible.

So Marshawn Lynch not talking is simply Marshawn Lynch not wanting to play nice with the charade. And that's fine. I frankly think the honesty of it is refreshing. And besides, if he isn't going to say anything, he's of no value to me as a journalist, anyway.

So let him go with God. Silently.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Apologize this

Give Patriots owner Robert Kraft this much: He's fully stocked on gall.

This after Kraft lashed out at the NFL, saying the league owed his team an apology if its investigation finds that the Patriots did not mess with the footballs used in the AFC title game.

Pardon me, but ... what?

Owes them an apology, after the Patriots were all but let off the hook for Sypgate? Owes them an apology, while trotting out a lot of nonsense about how the footballs used in the game somehow lost two pounds of pressure because of the weather? Owes them an apology?

The Blob has never been shy about putting the Shield up against the wall when it has it coming, but in this case, it's got Roger Goodell 'n' them's backs. The league will owe the Patriots nothing if it finds nothing. Zilch, nada, get outta my air, mister.

You expect a team owner to go to the mat for his guys, and if that were all Kraft had done yesterday, he would have been fine. But demanding the NFL bow and scrape for simply doing its job? Or even for questioning the integrity of an organization whose integrity has already been compromised?

The arrogance was breathtaking, not to say the lack of awareness. Does the man not realize how cynical the rest of the country already is about the Pats' cozy relationship with Roger the Hammer?

Outside New England, virtually no one expects the NFL to do a thing to Bill Belichick, Tom Brady or any of the other major players in the Patriots' fold. And, yes, that's precedence at work: The league let 'em up easy for Spygate, and the presumption is it will do so again.  As Richard Sherman of the Seahawks pointed out the other day, Goodell and Kraft were hanging out together at Kraft's place the weekend of the AFC title game. How fishy does that look now?

"Talk about a conflict of interest," Sherman said. And he was absolutely right.

Yet now Kraft is trying to paint the Patriots as an aggrieved party? What?

You can't say it too many times: Spygate stripped from the Patriots any right they have to the benefit of the doubt. Yesterday's offense-is-the-best-defense ploy might have been Kraft's attempt at salvaging his team's reputation, but that reputation fled into the night a long time ago. Most of the country simply assumes now that when Belichick's or Brady's lips are moving, they're lying.

Especially when you try to sell the utter twaddle they're trying to sell. The weather? It was 51 degrees at game time, not minus-51. And the temperature didn't drop all that much throughout the course of the game.

Try again, boys.

I don't know what the NFL's going to find, but I'll be surprised if it finds anything. The Patriot Way is sacrifice for the common good, and that means stonewalling to the last extremity. Apparently the league is looking at an equipment manager right now. Expect a lot of "No one told me to do anything but what the league mandates."

And so the Patriots will skate. And most of America will continue to think what the Patriots' own past behavior has allowed it to think, which is that again they got away clean. Or virtually so.

For that, neither America nor the league owes anyone an apology.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Your Media Day preview

Of course the NFL isn't going to deal with Deflategate until after the Super Bowl, Tom Brady. There's too much shrimp and high-end Chardonnay icing down already for that to happen.

That's  the biggest Well, duh, in the history of same, and anyone who thinks otherwise needs a quick lesson in what happens when justice collides with money. Priorities are priorities, and the priority here is the Shield's annual celebration of self. So it's full speed ahead, pass the shrimp and Chard -- and, please, not a breath about Ray Rice or concussions or what constitutes "a football move" when a guy climbs the ladder to make that Hall of Fame catch/not a catch.

And so you couldn't doubt Brady's word, at least on Sunday, when he said the only football move you can count on this week will be the NFL's bringing the Deflategate investigation to full stop. For all intents and purposes, it already has. Party on, dudes.

What's wrong with that is Bill Belichick will be on the sidelines Sunday instead of under NFL house arrest. What's right with it, albeit inadvertently, is that we'll get to watch Belichick (and every other Patriot) turn slowly on the grill tomorrow during Media Day.

The NFL refusing to put Deflategate to bed means it stays in play for at least another week, and won't that be fun. Especially hilarious will be watching Belichick's blood pressure rise with every shouted question. He'll be even more Belichick-ean than he was on Media Day in 2012, when some radio goof tried to get him to don a red plastic tricorn hat for the cameras.

"I'm not putting that on," Belichick growled.

He will, however, be subjected to yet more Deflategate for the solid hour he's mandated to be at his little booth, as will Brady and Gronk and everyone else. Who can't wait for that? Who can't wait for Marshawn Lynch of the Seahawks, fabled non-commicator, non-communicating about the fine he got for grabbing himself in a not-very-nice place after scoring against Green Bay?

Yes, sir. It's gonna be a ballsy day tomorrow. In, you know, one form or fashion.


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Mr. Joy departs

The mythmakers only got it half-right about Ernie Banks, who went to his considerable reward Friday at the age of 83. He was Mr. Cub, but that persona came wrapped in another, without which Mr. Cub would never have been Mr. Cub.

Call it this: Mr. Joy.

I met Mr. Joy in a suite at Memorial Stadium during a Wizards game one year, when he was in town to hawk replacement joints for a company out of Warsaw. If memory serves, he was lugging around a couple artificial joints himself by that time, given that he was getting on even then. It affected his disposition not in the slightest.

Simply put, the man was walking sunshine. People make a big deal now out of the fact he remained an unbreakable optimist even though he played for a franchise specifically designed to break optimists. But I suspect Mr. Joy would have been saying "It's a great day for baseball, let's play two!" had he been playing for the Mephistopheles Fightin' Brimstone in the Flames Of Perdition League.

A kinder, happier soul I never met, and the person doesn't breathe air who didn't walk away from a conversation with him -- it was always a conversation with Ernie, never just a word or two -- feeling lighter in spirit. The man could have made Bill Belichick crack a smile.

In 19 seasons with the Cubs he hit 512 home runs and played in 14 All-Star games, but of course that's hardly the reason he's so beloved. It's because not even playing for Cubs, who finished below .500 in all but six of his seasons, could wipe that neon smile off his face. The man loved baseball more than food, and it showed every day.  And that made you love it, too.

Today, his No. 14, the first number ever retired by the Cubs, hangs from the left-field foul pole in Wrigley Field. Outside, there's a statue of him. The inscription on it reads "Let's play two!"

Just now, as I write this, I'm looking out the kitchen window into my backyard. There are still patches of snow out there, but the winter-weary grass is a pale green. And for the first time in what seems like days, the sun has momentarily broken through the dreary gray overcast.

To heck with playing two.

Let's play three.    


Friday, January 23, 2015

Hoosiers ascending

So apparently Tom Crean can coach his way out of a paper bag. Who knew?

Who knew that the man slurred by his detractors as Coach Clappy would figure out a way to win with a bunch of guards and 'tweeners. In the Big Ten. In a country where, if you need a GPS to find the low blocks, they send you back to the frou-frou ACC.

Well. Later for that noise.

For now, it's time to stand and clap for Coach Clappy, last seen banging his mitts together as his Hoosiers obliterated No. 13 Maryland 89-70. Dropped nearly 90 and shot 60 percent, the Hoosiers did, against the best defensive team in the Big Ten. Knocked down 15 threes in 22 attempts, a ridiculous 68 percent clip. Got 24 from Yogi Ferrell and 22 from James Blackmon Jr., who combined for 10 of those threes.

Suddenly the Hoosiers -- who currently have no one on their roster taller than 6-7 -- are 15-4 overall and tied for first in the Big Ten with No. 5 Wisconsin. And they're doing it with a formula that turns everything you thought you knew about succeeding in the Big Ten inside-out and upside-down.

Simply put, they're doing it by outscoring people. By chuckin' it from the cheap seats, as the aptly named Shooter would say. By reaching back to their distant past and resurrecting the old Hurryin' Hoosiers meme -- of which Saint Bob of Knight once scuffed, in so many words, "The guy who came up with that is the biggest optimist in the world."

Meaning, of course, that you win with defense in the Big Ten. With the stop, not with the stop-and-pop. And you leave a mark or two doing it.

Crean can't do that with his roster, so he's figured out another way. It's not always going to work. Shooting being the fickle animal it is, there will be nights when the rock is a brick and the 3-point arc is closed for repairs. It might even happen Sunday at Ohio State, whom the Hoosiers have already taken down.

But attention must still be paid.  It must still be acknowledged that, with the exception of perhaps Wisconsin and Michigan State, there isn't anyone Indiana shouldn't be favored against down the road. And so the Hoosiers should at the very least be in the mix until the end -- a startling turn of affairs for a team picked to finish ninth in the preseason.

Crean deserves some credit for that. He deserves some respect. He may not be Saint Bob of Knight or Coach K or even that guy down in Lexington, but if this isn't the finest coaching job he's done since coming to Bloomington, it's at least in the team photo.

The detractors can call him Coach Clappy all they like. That's fine. It's Indiana. Detractors will always grow like velvet leaf there.

But right now, it's their applause that's warranted.

Wonderboy takes a seat

Of course you thought it was too soon. He is forever young, right?

Somehow, years and championships and victory upon victory along, Jeff Gordon remains the kid with the porn-star 'stache, the 23-year-old who looked 12 and cried when he won his first Cup race, and who ever after was dubbed "Wonderboy" by the smirking dark lord of NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt. Wasn't it just a week or so ago that he fled across the yard of brick to win the inaugural Brickyard 400? Wasn't it just a few days later that we were all anointing him the Next Big Thing?

And now here he is, announcing the Last Big Thing. At the end of the coming season, he's through as a full-time driver, climbing out of the No. 24 except on selected occasions, going home to his wife and his kids and the business opportunities that are sure to come for the man most responsible for the multi-layered commercial empire that is today's NASCAR.

If Earnhardt took it national, it was Gordon who took it corporate. Turn on your TV, and there he was, hawking Pepsi or Fritos or some other comestible. Open a magazine, and there he was again, all slicked up, holding up his left arm to prominently display his Tag Heuer watch.

Square-jawed and impossibly pretty, he became as much the public face of the sport as anyone, a circumstance that sometimes obscured just how good he was. If you ever doubt it, cue up the finish of the 1999 Daytona 500. Watch the move he made to take the lead with 11 laps to run, diving low to squeeze through a mail-slot opening between the leader, Rusty Wallace, and an off-the-pace Ricky Rudd.

There have been a lot of great moves made in NASCAR down the years. There's never been a better one than that.

Through all of it, of course, he remained ageless. Even in his later years, when he evolved into the elder statesman of the sport, you still looked at him sometimes and saw Wonderboy, saw the Rainbow Warrior who grabbed the sport so thoroughly by the throat that for awhile he was booed at almost every track he went to.

He had, after all, committed that most unpardonable of NASCAR sins: He won too much.

He has done that.  If it's not the gray at his temples that makes you realize time has not, in fact, stood still around him, it's the numbers piled up behind his name. Ninety-two Cup wins, third alltime behind Richard Petty and the best driver in the history of the sport, David Pearson.  Four titles. Three Daytona 500s. A record five Brickyard 400s -- the latest coming just last summer, when Gordon had a lion-in-winter season that produced four wins and nearly carried him to another title.

That resurrection as much as anything convinced him, midway through the season, that he'd give it one more year and then call it quits as a full-season driver. The rest is simply the natural arc of any man's life: At 43, Wonderboy is now a middle-aged husband and father who, despite the eternal-youth thing, is far older than he looks.

He has, after all, been doing this for almost 23 years. He's started 761 consecutive Cup races; sometime this season, he'll likely pass Rick Rudd's record 788. And he's paid the physical price, having struggled for years with serious back issues that nearly drove him from the sport after a winless, pain-wracked season in 2008.

So, it's time. And in a sense he's come full circle; if he cried after winning his first Cup victory, the 1994 Coca-Cola 600, he cried again yesterday when he told his kids, then broke down again when he stood up in front of his race team in a dark suit and tie, looking less like Wonderboy than perhaps he ever has.

Seeing him like that, so boardroom-proper, sparks a memory. Some years ago I headed west on Indiana 136, through Clermont, past what was then called Indianapolis Raceway Park, on to Pittsboro, 14 miles away from the place where Jeff Gordon had made history that boiling August day in 1994.  The intention was to talk to a few folks who remembered the Gordon who spent his teenage years there, and I got lucky.
I found his old principal. Some others. Eventually I wound up in the living room of the woman Gordon used to regard as his de facto grandmother, a woman who had filled her home with photos of him as a teenager.

She showed me some. And it will come as no surprise to anyone that the Gordon in those photos looked remarkably like the Gordon I would see a few days later, sitting in the Speedway media center holding forth on the upcoming Brickyard.

Wonderboy lived.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

It's clobberin' time

And now the ball is in Roger Goodell's court, properly inflated or not.

Bill Belichick chucked it there this afternoon by doing his best Claude Rains impression, professing to be shocked, shocked that the Patriots might have let the air out of 11 of the 12 footballs used in the AFC championship game Sunday. Why, the first he heard of it was Monday, Belichick said, in what for him was a stem-winder of a news conference. News to him, by golly. On and on.

(Eleven minutes, Belichick rambled along. It was like watching a mime suddenly break character and  recite the Gettysburg Address in perfect Laurence Olivier diction).

The whole thing was virtuoso rendition of Cover Your Ass, right down to the part where Belichick pretty much threw his quarterback under the bus by saying Tom Brady would know more about football inflation, seeing how he likes his footballs "a certain way." It all but delivered Brady to the NFL hoosegow in a stretch limousine -- and if that didn't cast doubt on everything else Belichick said, it damn well should have.

 Not that his veracity is really the issue here.

What's at issue is that an organization of which Belichick is the unquestioned leader has fallen under suspicion again, and he should at last have to answer for it. Regardless of whether he knew anything or not, the bottom line is it happened on his watch. And his watch already has more than one strike against it.

In the real world, two-time losers go to the clink. And that's what should happen here, beginning with the Super Bowl.

If it comes to light that the Patriots knowingly altered game equipment, Belichick needs to be sitting at home on his couch on Super Bowl Sunday. And he needs to be sitting on his couch for a long run of games thereafter, because there's precedent here, and the NFL needs to follow it.

If you're going to sit New Orleans coach Sean Payton for a year for something that wasn't explicitly in the rulebook (and with which he may not have had anything to do), then you need to sit Belichick for at least that long. Cheat me once (i.e.: Spygate), shame on you. Cheat me twice, shame on me -- and everyone, really, from the entire Patriot organization on down.

Here's the thing: When you mess with the integrity of the game, you mess with the integrity of the game. The entire game, from New England to San Diego.  This isn't just about a minor rules infraction, or the Patriots' legacy, which has already been irreparably tainted. This is about the NFL's legacy. Do you let this slide for awhile because you don't want to mess with your annual ATM-on-steroids? Or do you act now?

The answer is obvious. You act now. If you don't -- if you decide to dawdle on this because, gosh darn it, the Patriots are in the Super Bowl --  people will not just wonder if the Patriots are on the square. They'll wonder if the entire league is.

That's why Roger needs to pick up his Hammer again. Pronto.

As someone once said: It's clobberin' time.        


Your Pro Bowl moment for today

Maybe you missed it in all the hoo-ha over Deflategate. But a very important thing happened yesterday, because it impacted one of the premier events in sports in ways that were both meaningful and, well, full of meaning.

What happened was the Pro Bowl fantasy draft.

Michael Irvin, who owns one Pro Bowl fantasy team, took Tony Romo.

Cris Carter, who owns the other team and picked first, took Andrew Luck.

Which meant Andrew Luck was the No. 1 pick in the Pro Bowl draft, an undoubted highlight of his blossoming career. Not many guys can say they got taken No. 1 in the Pro Bowl draft, on account of the Pro Bowl has only had a draft for a couple of seasons. But, still. The Neckbeard was thrilled.

"It's nice, I guess," he gushed.

Darn right it's nice.

Playing for Team Carter (or, OK, Team Irvin) is what every boy dreams of from the moment he first picks up a football and chucks a fluttery pass to Dad in the backyard. Those who scoff that the Pro Bowl meant a lot more when it was AFC vs. NFC are big doodooheads. Who'd want to represent their conference when they could represent a couple of TV analysts instead?

I mean, this is the Pro Bowl, the finest example of groin-pull avoidance known to man. Guys play their whole careers for the opportunity to half-ass it in the Pro Bowl. Nothing in sports takes more skill than making it look like you're trying when you're actually just trying not to be That Guy Who Gets Hurt In The Pro Bowl And Screws Up The Back End Of His Next Contract.

In recent years, there've been more and more calls to abolish the Pro Bowl. It's a joke, people say. It's terrible football. Better to reward the players selected to play in it by simply sending them (and their families) to Hawaii for a week of sun, surf and the occasional rousing game of beach volleyball.

Nonsense. Football is football, even if it's a parody of football. And that's especially true on a day when there's no other football on. That's why people still watch the Pro Bowl. The NFL has Americans so thoroughly hooked on its product they'd watch the Pro Bowl if it was played between the AFC and NFC equipment managers.

Just put the ball in the air and give people a chance to argue whether or not Billy Don Grommet, towel boy for the Kansas City Chiefs, completed a "football move" on that catch. They'll do it. They're as hooked as any junkie.

And so, yes, the Pro Bowl serves a purpose, no matter how silly it all is. And, yes, Andrew Luck struck the exact right chord.

The Pro Bowl.

It's nice. We guess.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Situational ethics 101

It's just not America without a Gate swinging in the breeze somewhere, and so welcome, everyone, to the zippy new January 2015 model.  It's new, it's fun and it has people saying the most amazing things.

Say hello to Deflategate, folks!

Three days now since Bob Kravitz of WTHR in Indianapolis broke the story that the NFL was investigating the New England Patriots for monkeying with the footballs in the AFC championship game, and the pretzel logic continues unabated. We should be used to this sort of thing when it comes to the NFL and bad acts, but what some of the league's sycophants and apologists are saying this time around is even more twisted up than usual.

Which is: What the Patriots did isn't really cheating.

There's a lot of reasons they say that, but they seem to follow two standard refrains:

1. It's not cheating because the deflated footballs didn't have anything to do with the outcome of the game, and, anyway, what do you mean by "deflated"anyway? Isn't that just a miniscule difference in air pressure? And if it is, isn't this just the NFL being all OCD again?

2. It's not cheating, it's just the part of the NFL culture that dictates you try to gain a competitive advantage any way you can. Is there really that much difference, after all, between Deflategate and Bill Belichick going deep into the rulebook to trick the Baltimore Ravens with a tackle-eligible substitution?

No. 1, for those not genuflecting at the feet of The Coaching Genius That Is Bill Belichick, misses the point entirely. No. 2, for those not genuflecting at the feet of The Coaching Genius That Is Bill Belichick, misses the point entirely.

The point being, if the Patriots did this, it's cheating. Period. It doesn't matter if it had any impact on the game. It doesn't matter if it seems silly to quibble about a few pounds of air pressure. And it for sure isn't analogous to Belichick's now-famous tackle-eligible substitution.

That was a coach doing something .to win a football game that's within the rules. Deliberately deflating the footballs, if it happened, is not within the rules.

That should seem abundantly clear if you've got any moral center or grasp of ethics at all.  A kid playing second base for his Little League team in Barren Expanse Of Nothing, Idaho, would get this. Hell, a 6-year-old would.

Problem is, we're not dealing with 6-year-olds, who sometimes have a more finely developed sense of right and wrong than the adults around them. That's because they haven't discovered situational ethics yet. And it's because they haven't discovered sports-talk radio, those yapping poodles who -- especially on the national scale -- often seem like little more than carny shouters for the massive corporate enterprises they cover.

What's good for the NFL is good for America: Isn't that what they said about U.S. Steel, once upon a time?

Well, the Patriots and Bill Belichick are icons of the NFL. And so let the rationalizing begin:

Listen up, sonny. This is how it's done at the pro level. This is grownup, big-boy-pants football, so don't come in here with your child's conception of fair play. Look at the other Super Bowl coach, for heaven's sake. You think Pete Carroll hasn't done some underhanded stuff to get where he is? What about that mess at USC? What about the Adderall scandal in Seattle? But he's got a ring, too! He's an icon of the game, too!

So, sonny, don't tell us that these particular icons of the NFL have already been tried and convicted of cheating once, which affords them no benefit of the doubt in this instance. We don't care. We'll give them the benefit of the doubt, because, hey, Bill Belichick's going to be in Canton someday. He's a man. He's a Coaching Genius. And, besides, we're not gonna muck up the Super Bowl over a few deflated footballs. It didn't have any effect on the outcome, so what's the big deal?

That second baseman could tell them.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Your early, early, too-early Super Bowl pick

So already last night people were asking who I thought was going to win the Super Bowl, and I resisted the temptation to fire off my standard wise-guy answer, which is that it will definitely be a football team.

Instead, I said it was too early for that.

I should have known better.

I should have known that it's never too early to start filling up the blogosphere with my crackpot theories, because it's the Super Bowl.  People start predicting who's going to win the next Super Bowl the morning after the previous Super Bowl. Seriously. I've seen the posts.

And so, let me say this: I think the Seattle Seahawks are going to win.

I think they're going to win even though they played like utter goofs for 57 minutes Sunday.

I think they're going to win because, if you can play like utter goofs for 57 minutes in a conference championship game and still find a way to beat Aaron Rodgers, then clearly you can find a way to beat Tom Brady if you don't play like utter goofs for 57 minutes.

(If you do, though, you're toast. Bill Belichick won't leave points on the table the way Mike McCarthy did. He'll throw LeGarrette Blount at you on fourth-and-inches down on the goal line instead of kicking eleventy hundred field goals. Bill Belichick was born without the chicken gene that inhabits most NFL coaches. He was also born without the ethics gene, but that's another discussion for another time).

Anyway ... I'm picking the Seahawks, at least for the time being, because I can't conceive of Russell Wilson playing any worse than he did for 57 minutes against the Packers. He's not Brady, but he has one key Brady trait, Sunday notwithstanding: He rarely makes bad decisions. And, Sunday notwithstanding, the big moment rarely overwhelms him.

I'm also picking the Seahawks because their coach, Pete Carroll, is every bit as devious as Belichick. He knows his way around a tackle-eligible play, too. Belichick won't surprise him with gimmick plays because he's a gimmick monster himself. There's nothing his counterpart can spring on him that he hasn't tried himself, or at least knows about.

So, there's that. There's also this: That Seahawks defense isn't going anywhere.

Lost in all the commotion about the Comeback was the fact that the Seahawks' defense did exactly what it needed to do to keep the team upright while the offense was tripping over footstools. Except for one Rodgers touchown pass, it kept the Packers out of the end zone. It forced three-and-outs on half of the Packers' six second-half drives. And on the Pack's two second-half scoring drives, the Seahawks "D" limited them to two field goals -- and it took Green Bay 10 plays to move 57 yards on one drive and seven plays to move 48 on the other.

Not exactly a sieve, that defense. And that was with Richard Sherman playing most of the second half with one arm.

It was the Seattle defense that dominated the Super Bowl last year. It says here, at least right now, that it will do the same this year, to a somewhat lesser degree. And the Seahawks will become the first team since, you guessed it, the Patriots, to win back-to-back Lombardis.

That's the Blob's call.

Well. At least for now.  

Monday, January 19, 2015

A few brief thoughts on That Football Game

The Colts are back in Indianapolis, arriving in several dozen sandwich bags marked Some Assembly Required. The Packers have fled eastward toward Wisconsin, cursing whatever benighted soul decided football games should last 60 minutes and not, say, 57.

 Now it's just the Seahawks vs. the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX, aka So What Else is On?, aka You Bring The Beer And Queso, I'll Cue Up Netflix. Because outside of the Pacific Northwest and New England, is there anyone in America who cares for either of these teams?

On one sideline you've got Pete Carroll, aka Surfer Dude, a brilliant coach with some dodgy ethics in his past (paging Reggie Bush ... paging Reggie Bush). And on the other, you've got Bill Belichick, aka Darth Hoodie, a brilliant coach with some dodgy ethics in his present.

I don't know whether it's true or not that the Patriots deflated the footballs in the AFC championship game, and it's immaterial, anyway. LaGarrette Blount deflating the Colts' defensive down seven had a lot more to do with what happened than deflating the footballs.

But I wouldn't allow Darth Hoodie within a nautical of the game balls two weeks from now. After Spygate and Deflategate, we all know how he is. And what he is.

Sunday night, he was a football coach with a stranglehold on a football opponent unique in its totality. He owns the Colts, and there's no soft-shoeing that. He owns them mentally and physically and in ways undreamt of in your philosophy. And he does so to such a degree that he can get away with going for it on fourth down when he's up 38-7, because like any bully he knew in his heart the Colts weren't going to stop him.

Except for one half of one meaningful game, he owned Peyton Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to buckle a chinstrap. Now he owns the Next Peyton, Andrew Luck. Thus has it ever been so.

Meanwhile, out in Seattle, the debate continues: Who, exactly, was playing quarterback for the Seahawks for 57 minutes?

Your choices:

A) Russell Wilson

B) Rita Wilson

C) Wilson Pickett

The correct answer is "D," Wilson the Volleyball, who, despite lacking certain key anatomical features (arms, legs, a sentient brain), could have played as well as his namesake did for most of the afternoon. How bad was it? It was so bad, that, at one point, the Seahawks punter was having a better day throwing the football. It doesn't get worse than that.

 Yet Wilson, Carroll and the Seahawks had one thing going for them: The Green Bay Packers.

Who spent most of the second half playing not to lose after piling up a 16-0 halftime lead.

Who, with the Seahawks backed up third-and-19 on what would be their initial scoring drive, unaccountably sent in only two pass rushers, allowing Wilson to stand unblemished in the pocket until a receiver came open far enough downfield to move the chains.

Who chose to take a knee at midfield after intercepting Wilson for the fourth time, instead of trying to return it closer to field goal range.

And who were still up 19-14 when Brandon Bostick muffed an onside kick everyone in America knew full well was coming.

Marshawn Lynch immediately ripped off a touchdown run to give the Seahawks their first lead. And even though the Packers rallied for a field goal to send it into overtime, there was an overwhelming sense they were finished. And they were.

And now, it's Patriots vs. Seahawks. Welcome, most of America, to the Super Bowl From Hell.

Chowdah vs. Starbucks. Surfer Dude vs. Darth Hoodie. Tom Brady vs. Wilson the Volleyball.

Who might want to steer clear of Belichick, all things considered.

Word has it he's pretty hard on sports equipment these days. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Another fine NCAA mess

So now JoePa's got his wins back, and people are running victory laps in Happy-Again Valley. Already they're calling for that statue that's no longer outside Beaver Stadium to be restored to its rightful place. And when it is, everything will be right with the world at Penn State University.

Why, shoot. It'll be as if Jerry Sandusky never raped a single kid, while Penn State University (and, yes, Joe Paterno) looked the other way.

I'm wondering how that kid Mike McQueary caught Sandusky with in the shower that day feels about that.

I'm wondering how all the kids Sandusky gifted with a lifetime of nightmares are feeling today, watching Pennsylvania State  Sen. Jake Corman all but high-five the media in announcing that the NCAA had "surrendered."  Yes, they're all young adults now, and, yes, Sandusky's behind bars likely forever. But you can't help thinking they felt violated all over again, watching all that highly inappropriate glee.

And here's the thing: I don't blame the Penn State people for that. I blame the NCAA.

Without its panicked overreach in this mess to begin with, there would have been no hurtful victory laps yesterday. Those 112 victories from 1998 to 2011 would never have been vacated, a decision the NCAA came to just 11 days after the Freeh report was released. Penn State could not have played the victim card, one more kick in the head to the real victims in all of this. In so hurriedly trying to put  Penn State on the rack for its crimes, the NCAA only aided and abetted them.

The great irony here, of course, is that the NCAA's judgment has always been as glacial as it has been capricious. Unwieldy and as slow to turn as the Titanic, it has struck its own share of icebergs as a result. That it's now sinking hard by the bow, just like the Titanic, has seemed inevitable for years.

What happened Friday won't help matters any.

Forget NCAA czar Mark Emmert's assertion that the settlement it reached with Penn State was not an admission that his organization overstepped its authority. Those were just empty words -- as empty as the part of the settlement in which Penn State was obliged to acknowledge that the NCAA had acted in good faith.

The restored victories -- which restores Paterno as the winningest coach in NCAA history -- spoke much more eloquently. And loudly.

So did the on-campus rally, attended by hundreds of students, that celebrated this latest victory. So will the ceremony that will undoubtedly accompany the resurrection of the Paterno statue, which was taken down because some school officials felt it would be an impediment to the healing process.

Well. Apparently the healing's all done now.

Sandusky's in jail. A $60 million fine earmarked for child abuse concerns is now on Pennsylvania's hands. And JoePa -- who may have known as far back as 1998 that Sandusky was up to something, and neglected to wield his enormous influence at Penn State to put a stop to it -- stands absolved.

Because what other message can you take from the restored wins? And if JoePa stands absolved, how does Penn State not also? Or at the very least appear to be?

How strange it all is. The NCAA thought it was putting the folks at Penn State on the hook for protecting their football program when they should have been protecting innocent children.

Turns out it was letting them off the hook. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Crazy like a Fox

So the Bears have a new coach now, and what you can at least say about him is that, as retreads go, he's still got a fair about of wear left on him. But is John Fox is a great hire?

Beats me. What's "a great hire"?

These days, "great hire" seems to be code for "he'd better be putting his fingerprints on the Lombardi Trophy within three years." By that measure, there are very few great hires in the NFL anymore. What there are, instead, are a lot of good hires, garnished with a smattering of OK hires and "meh" hires.

Say this about Fox: He's not the latter. And there's a lot of other things he's not.

He's not, to begin with, Jim Tomsula. The 49ers just made him their new head coach mainly because he's a nice guy who gets along with management. His only previous head coaching experience wasn't even in the Western Hemisphere (Rhein Fire, Germany, NFL Europe). That pretty makes him the working definition of a "meh" hire.

Fox is also not a guy whose last known address (speaking of the Rhein Fire) was the Toronto Argonauts. Or the Montreal Alouettes. The Bears tried going that route. It didn't work out so well.

Instead, what they get with Fox is a guy who's won 119 games as an NFL head coach. And who's gotten two different teams to the Super Bowl. And whose Carolina teams in particular were defensively stout -- in five of his eight years, they ranked in the top five in the NFL in fewest points and yards allowed -- which would seem to put him in good stead with the Bears, home to Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary and defenses that traditionally would just as soon punch you in the face as look at you.

So he's got that going for him.

You can wonder how he'll get along with Jay Cutler, but, given that it's Cutler, you'd wonder that even if the Bears hired Gandhi. And you can wrinkle your brow, if you like, about the fact that, in two of Fox's four seasons in Denver, the Broncos lost at home in their initial playoff game.

Big deal. At least he got them to the playoffs, a magical place the Bears have seen only once since they played in the Super Bowl seven years ago. And at least he's not Tomsula or some guy snowshoeing in from Calgary.

A great hire?

Again, beats me. But these days, in Chicago, he doesn't really have to be.     

Once more into the breach, or something

I know what Gillette Stadium is, if you're the Indianapolis Colts.

It's the Overlook Hotel.

Remember? Stephen King's famous haunted hotel from "The Shining"?

It's an odd, somber, gray old place weirdly stuck out in the middle of nowhere -- seriously, if you squint just right at the exit sign along I-95 in the wilds between Providence, R.I., and Boston, it reads not "Foxborough" but "Middle of Nowhere." You get off, drive through a sleepy village about the size of Kendallville, turn a corner ... and there, springing up out the woods, is this mammoth stadium.

Odd, like I said. And, if you're the Colts, haunted.

They're 0-3 there vs. Bill Belichick in the playoffs, and every one of the three has been a harrowing experience. They march in there full of swagger and bravado, and before night has fallen they're being chased around by a lunatic Jack Nicholson brandishing a fire axe, ala "The Shining."

Hey, Colts: Heeere's JOHN-ny!

Peyton Manning got terrorized a few times in Gillette, as Darth Hoodie over there on the Patriots' sideline got in his head and crawled around like few people in the NFL have ever been able to. Now the Dark Lord of Foxborough is playing the same games with Andrew Luck -- who's 0-3 vs. Belichick with a 68.7 quarterback rating, eight interceptions and just two touchdowns.

The Colts, meanwhile, have lost all three games by an aggregate score of 144-66. Back in November, it was 42-20.

Heeere's Johnny, indeed.

And here are the Colts heading back east, and there's absolutely no reason to think the ghosts of the Overlook won't have their way with them again.

Oh, sure, if you like, you can look for sustenance at Belichick's odd record in the playoffs against teams the Patriots played in the regular season (a pedestrian 8-7). Or you can point to LaRon Landry, who barely played in November but has since become a key element of an apparently rejuvenated Colts defense.

But that's small beer stacked up against the weight of history. And if history doesn't always win, it's sure won a lot more than it's lost.

And so, yes, the Blob, which got burned picking against Luck and Co. in Denver last week, is going against the Horsies again.

Patriots 35, Colts 24.

Once more into the breach.



Thursday, January 15, 2015

A no-decision decision

There are decisions you make only after much deliberation, and decisions that are so obvious they require no deliberation whatsoever.

The Indianapolis Colts are facing both right now.

The first decision is what they do with reserve linebacker/special teams player Josh McNary moving forward, after McNary was charged with rape, criminal confinement and battery stemming from a complaint filed by an Indianapolis woman after an incident that occurred Dec. 1.

The second decision is what they do about McNary this weekend, as they head to New England for the AFC championship game.

The first decision requires more thought. The second does not.

You leave him home.

You leave him home not because you've found him guilty until proven innocent, but because you are above all else a major component of a corporate entity that's trying to crawl out from under the shadow of Ray Rice and the elevator. Since Roger Goodell's addled slap on the wrist in that instance, the entire league has been furiously churning out makeup calls, instituting tough new policies and saying all the right things about how the Shield will not tolerate domestic/sexual abuse.

But you know what?

Half the country still thinks the Shield tolerates it. And that's because, no matter how much it likes to protest otherwise, it always pretty much has.

So this is a perception issue above everything else, and if you want to say that makes suspending McNary a PR move by the Colts, go right ahead. It is a PR move. That's because the NFL is a business like any other business, no matter what its anti-trust exemption says about that. It gets fat on the good will and loyalty of its customers. And good PR stemming from solid business practices is what generates that good will and loyalty.

If it weren't, there wouldn't so many PR firms out there making the kind of major coin they're making.

And so the Colts, and by proxy the NFL, can't afford to soft-shoe this, especially now. To their credit, the Colts never have. And it says here they won't this time.

You'd like to think at least part of their decision to leave McNary home, if that's indeed what they do, would stem from consideration for his alleged victim. But it won't be. It'll be about PR.

I'll let you decide what's wrong with that. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Your TV drama premise for today

And now we introduce a new Blob feature, Timeout For Weirdness, which will appear whenever something monumentally weird (as opposed to everyday weird) surfaces in the wide wide world of sports.

No, this isn't about Rex Ryan's obsession with his wife's feet.

This is about Kurt Busch and his former girlfriend, whom he claims is a trained assassin carrying out covert killings for the government.

Come on, now. You really think I could make that up?

 No, Kurt claims she came to him in a blood-spattered gown one night, after presumably bumping off some bad guy (I'm thinking she killed him with piano wire, but that's just a guess). He also claims a lot of other stuff -- take a minute to read the link -- that's designed to make you think she's a dangerous wacko, but somehow just makes you think Busch himself is a bubble or so off plumb.

I will say this: Having been in on numerous news conferences with Kurt, he sometimes does come off a little strange. But then, he makes his living driving in circles really fast surrounded by 42 other loons driving in circles really fast. So I suppose strange is a relative term.

I won't say the guy's a flat-out weirdo, but he does have a reputation for pulling stunts that are inexplicable even by the standards of a sport not notably overserved with completely sane people. You have to be a little crazy to do what these guys do, even if you're that nice Jeff Gordon boy. So there is that.

And what the heck, maybe Kurt's telling the truth. In which case this could make for one bang-up USA Network drama series.

She's a trained killer. He gets into feuds at 190 mph with Brad Keselowski. Craziness ensues in the new USA series "I Married A Guy Who Got His Ass Fired By Roger Penske." 

Set your DVRs now.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A victory for windchills, sort of

There goes Ezekiel Elliott, busting through shoals of white Oregon jerseys again, wolfing down mammoth slices of clock, keeping Marcus Mariota over there on the sideline with his faithful sidekick, T. Heisman Trophy.

Strange. Ol' Zeke doesn't look cold at all.

Neither does Cardale Jones, who's currently bench-pressing the national championship trophy. Neither do any of those guys wearing scarlet jerseys and those weird stickers on their helmets that Ohioans insist are buckeyes, but that folks out in Colorado know is a different plant species entirely.

They could, Coloradoans no doubt would say, put that in their pipe and smoke it. Except it's Ohio, so of course that'll never happen.

What will happen will be a parade in Columbus, Ohio, celebrating a national championship for the Ohio State Buckeyes and the best coach in college football, Urban Meyer. The man is 38-3 since taking over the scandal-plagued program in 2011. He's three seasons in and still hasn't lost a Big Ten conference game.  And if you looked at his athletes vs. Oregon's athletes last night, you saw no discernible difference, unless the difference was that Ohio State actually had better athletes and more of them.

The final score was 42-20, after all. And the Buckeyes did exactly what they planned on doing, which is beat the Ducks up front, throw their A-list running back at them eleventy-hundred times, and dominate the clock. Mariota and Oregon's high-volume offense can't score from the bench, after all.

And so Elliott gashed the Quackers for 246 yards, including three second-half touchdowns that finished it. And the Buckeyes hogged the football for more than 37 minutes to Oregon's 22-plus. And what will all the people say now who said the southern schools are always going to dominate college football because the elite athletes won't go play in the cold, snowy Midwest?

Well. I know what this one will say. This one will say he was dead wrong.

Winning is a marvelous insulator, and so if you win at the outrageous clip Meyer has so far, the athletes will come. They won't care how cold it is in the wintertime. They'll just stay inside, or send out for Starbucks.

The plain truth is, you can still win anywhere in college football, and hallelujah for that. This was not so much a triumph for the Big Ten as it was a triumph for the home truth that, in college football, the head coach is everything. No one goes to Alabama because it's warmer than, say, South Bend; they go to Alabama because Nick Saban is there. If that weren't true, Mississippi State would be a powerhouse every year, too. But it wasn't until Dan Mullen got there that that happened.

Players play for coaches,  not for weather and not for mascots. And so Meyer's going to get just as many athletes, if not more, than all those southern schools. Ditto first Chip Kelly and, now, Mark Helfrich, at Oregon -- another school that, need we remind you, doesn't exactly play in a tropical climate. Yet they have as many athletes as anyone every year.

So score this one a W for those of us who are tired of getting taunting Facebook photos of palm trees and sugar beaches every winter while we run the bleeping Iditarod every morning.

This one's for us. Mush, Fido.    

Monday, January 12, 2015

On the Colts, the Yes It Was A Catch, and stuff

A moment here, if you please, while I tuck this sentence beneath my arm, cradle it in my elbow, walk down to the corner and back, have a cup of coffee, trip on a throw rug, fall down and drop a preposition.

Darn. Some NFL official just ruled it's not a sentence.  Didn't make it to February fully under my control, you see.

That's essentially what happened in Green Bay yesterday, and before the Blob takes up anything -- how wrong it was about the Colts, for instance -- let's take that up. And try to maintain control of it.

Dez Bryant's catch: Was it a catch?

According to the rules, no. According to common sense, logic, the eye test and any other kind of test, yes. A damn brilliant one.

Something has gone seriously off the rails when your rulebook penalizes brilliance, and, in fact, denies that brilliance ever took place. As I've said before, I do not and never have worn a star on my helmet -- I think the Cowboys got away with one last week, when an equally horrendous call ruled that obvious interference against the Lions was not pass interference -- but wrong is wrong. And the NFL needs to correct this wrong immediately.

I've spent a lot of time in the last 18 hours or so watching Bryant's catch, and I've come to the conclusion that A) the rule as written was applied properly, and B) it was nonetheless a catch by any reasonable criteria. He grabbed the ball in mid-air. He pulled it in. He took one, two, three steps on the way down. He hit the turf with the ball still firmly cradled in the crook of his arm. But the ground knocked it loose, so somehow it's not a catch?

And what about the rule that says the ground can't cause a fumble? Doesn't that suggest a play is dead the instant any part of the player makes contact with the turf?

Yet by the rule, which states some muddle about "a football move," it's not a catch. And you know what's wrong about that, other than, again, it negates brilliance?

Had the NFL had the same rule back in the 1970s, one of the iconic plays in Super Bowl history -- Lynn Swann's juggling, double-grabbing catch over Mark Washington in Super Bowl X -- might well have been ruled an incomplete pass.

That's not just wrong. It's criminal.

* And now three words you've never heard before on the Blob, at least after the first few thousand times:

I was wrong.

The Colts are better than I thought. Or at least they were yesterday.

It's well documented I have not been impressed by them all season, but credit must go where it's due: Yesterday they played far and away the best game they've played all year on both sides of the football, at a time when they had to do exactly that to survive.

The subtext to the day, of course, was the clear passing of the torch from the previous Colts icon to the current Colts icon. Andrew Luck was simply brilliant, the very epitome of the next great quarterback legend. Peyton Manning, on the other hand, looked as if the curtain were finally beginning to come down on perhaps the greatest quarterbacking career ever.

On a day when weather in Denver was not really a factor, the deep throw wasn't there for him. Ever. And yesterday he needed it, because Luck put the Broncos down early and the Colts defense played the sort of  peerless football of which a lot of people (OK, me, then) didn't think they were remotely capable.

It's the first time in memory, really, that when Manning absolutely needed something from his extensive toolbox, it wasn't there. And if you perhaps can put that down to simply a bad day ... well, for the first time, it didn't look like a bad day. It just looked like what he is now.

And Andrew Luck?

He looked like what Peyton Manning used to be. And so off the Colts go to the scene of  their traditional resting place, Foxborough, Mass.

Do they have it in them to chase all the ghosts out of that haunted house?

The Blob says no. But then, the Blob didn't think they had it in them to beat Peyton Manning coming off a week's rest, either. So we'll see.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Ducks? Or Bucks?

A man would have to be crazy, or at least mildly touched in the head, to pick a football team led by a third-string quarterback over a football team led by a guy who just won the Heisman Trophy.

Yet somehow a lot of people are doing that, as Ohio State (with third-stringer Cardale Jones) takes on Oregon (with Heisman winner Marcus Mariota) in the inaugural national championship game down there in the Jerry Dome.


Well, faithful followers of the Blob (pipe down, you two) already know I'm  mildly touched, if by"mildly touched" you mean "if he had a brain, he'd be outside playing with it." So no real surprise that I'm going with Ohio State, too.

Just to be clear, I'm not going with the Buckeyes because of the Midwest/Big Ten thing. As far as I'm concerned, the Big Ten left its Midwestern identity at the curb when it added an ACC school (Maryland) and a Big East school (Rutgers) so it could tap into all that East Coast TV dough. Now it's just another corporate entity with its hand out, which means it's no longer a conference toward which Midwesterners should feel any particular affinity. Because it no longer has any for them.

So this isn't a regional thing. It's an eye test thing.

The eye test happened in the Sugar Bowl, when the Buckeyes handled the pride of the supposedly invincible SEC West, Alabama, with unbecoming ease. You could tell five minutes in that not only did the Buckeyes have just as many athletes as Alabama -- and maybe more, considering they attacked the Crimson Tide where no one attacks it, on the edge, and made it work -- they were, in fact, the superior  team. After gifting 'Bama with two early touchdowns to go down 21-6, they outscored the Tide 36-14 the rest of the way.

Think about that: 36-14. That, friends, is a rump-roastin'.

Now comes Oregon, which is missing two key receivers (Darren Carrington and Devon Allen) and wins big because it plays at warp speed and scores points in bunches. Inevitably, when Oregon wins, the game turns on a seven-or-eight-minute window when the Ducks lay on four or five scores. After that, it's arrivederci.

But as the Buckeyes proved against Alabama, they have the athletes to withstand that minute window. And they have the best coach in college football, the occasionally insufferable but brilliant Urban Meyer, who's had 12 days to mull over how he's going to keep the Ducks somewhere around the speed limit.

Says here he'll have figured it out by now. And if he has -- if the Ducks can't bury the Buckeyes early, or if that window doesn't crack open for them the way it usually does -- Oregon's in trouble. Because Ohio State has athletes on the offensive side, too, and they'll be facing an Oregon defense that's not nearly as gnarly as Alabama's was.

So. Let's call it Ohio State 44, Oregon 40.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Your deluxe NFL preview

It would be inaccurate to call the Blob a prognostication-free zone, on account of I prognosticate a lot here, like when I prognosticate that soon, very soon, I will be prognosticating about something or other.

Today that something or other is the NFL divisional playoffs. And if it's inaccurate to call the Blob a prognostication-free zone, it's because it's generally a BAD prognostication-free zone.

That said ... let's start off by taking "Packers vs. Cowboys" for a hundred, Alex.

This throwback special  likely comes down not to apocalyptic weather this time (it's supposed to be 23 degrees at game time, so break out the Coppertone), but to whether or not Aaron Rodgers' calf has actually fallen off his body or not. The official line is that it's dinged pretty bad, which in fluent TeamSpeak, means he's probably going to be as immobile as Vince Lombardi's statue outside of Lambeau. Which means the Cowboys have a better-than-fighting chance.

If the Pokes open with a time-consuming drive featuring liberal doses of DeMarco Murray, it's going to go their way. They'll run on the Packers a lot better than they ran on the Lions, which means Tony Romo will have more time, and if you give Romo time he can slice you like a Thanksgiving turkey. And he's a perfect 8-0 on the road this year.

On the other hand ... the Packers are a perfect 8-0 at home. And a one-legged Aaron Rodgers is not, say, a one-legged Charlie Whitehurst. So make it Packers, 27-24.

That would send them into the NFC title game against the winner of Seattle-Carolina, which is to say, Seattle. The Panthers are still around only because, in the wild-card, they got a Cardinals team that had to travel all the way across the country and were playing either Stoney Case or Jim Hart at quarterback.  Now it's the Panthers who have to travel all the way across the country, where Richard Sherman and Co. will be there to greet them.

Bloodshed ensues. Seattle 34, Carolina 14.

Something else will ensue several hundred miles east in Denver, where the Colts return to the scene of a 31-24 loss on opening day.  The smart money's going with the Broncos all the way here, but, even though the Blob has regarded the Colts as semi-counterfeit all season, I think the Indiana Horsies have a shot. Peyton Manning has been profoundly human the last month -- six picks vs. three TDs in his last four games -- and if Andrew Luck can reproduce a few more magic acts like his touchdown to Donte Moncrief last week, stuff could happen.

But probably not. The Colts weren't all that impressive last week against a Bengals team held together by duct tape. And Peyton and the Broncos have had a week to prepare/rest. Broncos 31, Colts 20.

Last but not least, it's the most intriguing matchup of the weekend: Ravens at the Patriots. Immediate history says the Patriots, who've been the best team in the AFC for a few minutes now. Deeper history says they'll struggle at Foxborough against the Ravens, who kicked the Belichicks out of the playoffs there with little trouble two years ago, and would have done the same in 2011 had Lee Evans not dropped an easy six and Billy Cundiff not yanked a field goal wide.

 What they've got going for them this time around is what they had going for them then: A prickly defense and Joe Flacco, an unflappable playoff presence who's badly outplayed Tom Brady in the last two playoff meetings in Foxborough.

So ... Ravens 24, Patriots 20. Because the rules say you've gotta pick at least one upset.



Friday, January 9, 2015

Ice Bowl 2? Hardly

So it's Dallas and Green Bay again in Lambeau Field in the dead of winter, and of course it comes up. Of course you're going to turn on ESPN and see the clip -- Bart Starr lowering his head, Jerry Kramer and Ken Bowman moving Jethro Pugh aside like twin shovel blades -- and everyone will talk about the most famous NFL game ever played, if not the greatest.

Everyone will talk about the Ice Bowl back there in 1967, about 13-below at game time and 20-below by the time Starr ended it, about 100 yards of turf that gradually turned white as it froze as solid as a New York  sidewalk.

This is the first time since then the Cowboys and Packers have met in the playoffs in Lambeau, and, listen, it won't be any Ice Bowl 2. For those who witnessed it and played in it, one was enough.

 I was 12 years old the day they played the game, and what I remember most watching on TV is the haze of white smoke that hung over Lambeau that afternoon. Except it wasn't smoke. It was the exhaled breath of thousands of fans, carbon dioxide chuffing out into the super-refrigerated air in mighty plumes, and it gave the place the look of a factory site, churning out some great commodity for the American consumer.

The commodity in this case was football, or allegedly so. Truthfully, it didn't look much like football. It looked like 22 men tiptoeing across a sheet of literally frozen tundra like nervous ballerinas, trying to keep from freezing to death.

Running backs couldn't cut. Receivers slithered through patterns with their thinly gloved hands stuffed in their pants. Passes from quarterbacks who couldn't really set up in the pocket fluttered like lace handkerchiefs in a wind that blew straight out of hell. It was awful football.

But memorable?

Oh, sure. It was that.

Because of the Ice Bowl, we remember Donny Anderson, who caught a key pass on the Packers' final drive. We remember a running back from Yale named Chuck Mercein, who got the ball down to the shadow of the goal with a big run. And of course we remember Kramer and Bowman and Jethro Pugh, the Dallas defensive lineman who would go down in history as the Guy Who Got Blocked On the Last Play.

Old-school fans who like to bemoan the death of football as we know it always hold up the Ice Bowl as the prime example of men being men, conquering the elements, bending them to their will. Those who played in it, and those who watched it, know that for the horse pucky it is. The players -- the survivors -- today will tell you the elements kicked their ass, and that the game was a miserable experience. Some were afflicted with frostbite that plagues them to this day; the rest just marvel that they actually tried to play football in those sort of conditions.

And those of us who watched, or at least some of us?

I can't speak for everyone. But all I kept thinking was this: Wow, look at those guys. They've got to be crazy, playing in that kind of weather.

And yet ... now, all these years later, I realize what a unique thing it was. In an era of domed multi-purpose stadiums and liability issues, nothing like it will ever happen again. And it for sure won't happen Sunday in Green Bay.

The forecast high, after all, is supposed to be 23 degrees.

Pah. Might as well bring sunscreen.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The IU blueprint, in reverse

We've seen a couple of times this year how Indiana will have to play to be successful. Now we've seen what happens when they don't play that way.

What happens is Michigan State 70, Indiana 50, on Monday night.

It was a classic example of dominoes crashing to the earth, one by one by one: The Spartans took the Hoosiers' penetration away, which resulted in fewer kick-outs to the perimeter shooters. Which resulted in fewer open looks. Which resulted in fewer made shots.

Which resulted in the Spartans clobbering the undersized Hoosiers on the glass, which resulted in more transition for the Spartans, which resulted in too many easy buckets for Sparty on the other end.

Life in the Big Ten did not figure to be easy for Indiana this season, especially for a team that's relying as heavily on freshmen as the Hoosiers. James Blackmon Jr. came to the Big Ten opener as the nation's second leading freshman scorer. In two conference games so far, he's 3-of-23 from the floor. And now other teams -- first up, No. 22 Ohio State -- will no doubt use the Michigan State game as a template for how to play the Hoosiers.

To wit: Take their penetration away, defend the perimeter, crash the glass. Which to me suggests Indiana will see a steady diet of man with zone principles from here on out. Take the drive away and get out on the shooters: That's what Michigan State did, and that's what everybody else is going to try to do.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A few brief thoughts on Horses vs. Horses

The Indianapolis Colts can beat the Denver Broncos this weekend.

There. I said it.

I said it, even though the Blob has resolutely avoided the Colts bandwagon this season, on account of they're simply not that good. They have no running game, at least on a sustained basis. Their offensive line is shaky. They got fat on the Little Sisters of the Poor in the AFC South, and they struggled at home with a depleted Bengals team in the wild-card round until Andrew Luck threw a touchdown pass right out of the Canton Collection.

So there's that.

But there's also this: The Broncos aren't all that good, either.

They beat the Colts in Denver by a touchdown in Week 1, but that was largely because they built a 24-0 lead before hanging on for a 31-24 win. Luck dinged them for 350 yards and two scores, and there's no reason to believe he won't put up comparable numbers this weekend. If the Colts get anything resembling what they got out of Boom Herron last weekend, they could do this -- especially with Peyton Manning in an apparent late-season fade.

The man put up video-game numbers again this season -- 4,727 yards and 39 touchdowns -- but all that does is obscure what he did the last month of the season, which was less a video game than Betamax. Since Thanksgiving, he's had one game in which his QBR has been over 100, and across the last four games he's thrown six interceptions against just three touchdowns, and looked markedly arm-weary doing it.

The joker in this deck, of course, is that Manning and the Broncos got a bye week to rest/heal up. So maybe the Colts get early-season Peyton instead of late-season Peyton. And unless they execute better than they did against the Bengals -- even in the easy win, they left a lot of points on the table -- that could mean the season ends in five days.

It says here that's exactly what's going to happen. But we're not saying it quite as resolutely as we once were.


Monday, January 5, 2015

A brief political comment

So remember the comment in the previous post about Jerry Jones (aka, The Skull) celebrating with his dweeb friends?

Well, one of them was New Jersey governor, and presumptive presidential candidate, Chris Christie. And apparently he is that rarest of things among politicians: A man honest about his sports allegiances.

There's nothing the Blob loathes more than a politician shifting into Fake Fandom mode, and there are numerous examples. Remember when John Kerry forget what side of the state line he was on and chirped "How about them Buckeyes?" to a largely Michigan crowd? And how about Hillary Clinton, alleged Cubs fan, donning a Yankees cap while running for office in New York?

(Note to Hill: No real Cubs fan would be caught dead wearing that mess on his/her head. You are hereby convicted of first-degree pandering).

Every time some politician does this, it confirms for the voting public that politicians are actually extraterrestrials from the Planet Tupperware -- i.e., 100 percent, grade A plastic. And so it's refreshing when one of them actually sticks by his team like a real fan, even if he is a presidential hopeful doing so in a big electoral vote state.

I'm not saying here that Christie hugging The Skull wasn't awkward and disgusting, because it was. But at least Christie is an actual Cowboys fan who's been to several games this season and always wears his lucky orange sweater. It's no doubt caused him untold grief, given that he's governor of a state that's the home base to the Giants, one of the Cowboys' fiercest rivals. But he's apparently never pretended not to be Cowboys fan -- and there's an outside chance he actually remembers Don Meredith and Bob Lilly, and maybe even Don Perkins. 

In that sense he's a lot like Barack Obama. Say what you want about Obama (and people will), but he roots unabashedly for his Chicago teams, and it doesn't matter where he is. Still remember the time he told a Wisconsin crowd the Bears were going to get the Packers this year.

The creatures from Planet Tupperware could take a lesson.


Lions will do what Lions will do

First things first this morning, now that the unpleasantness of watching Jerry Jones celebrating with his dweeb friends -- really, FOX, was that necessary? -- has mostly subsided:

The Blob does not wear a star on its helmet.

Which is to say, you won't find any Cowboys' fans on the premises, the Blob having wearied of the Cowboys back in the days when they presumed to declare themselves America's Team (or at least allowed others to do so on their behalf). I actually liked the Cowboys back when Don Meredith and Bob Hayes and Bob Lilly played for them, and they were endearing foils for the Packers. Then they won a Super Bowl and got all self-important, and that was that.

That said ... no one in Dallas paid the zebras to hand them their wild-card playoff game against the Lions. The Lions did that all by themselves.

Yes, the Phantom Flag call was outrageous and clearly pass interference (and even if it wasn't, why no penalty on Dez Bryant for entering the field of play without a helmet?). But other than that, the Lions were responsible for their own demise.

The penalties they committed to keep Dallas' winning drive breathing were, as far as I could tell, legit. The Lions simply self-destructed, as the Lions have historically had a habit of doing. They needed no assistance.

No, what you had here was a team that played an almost flawless first half coming unraveled as the Cowboys made their second-half push. In the second half, they were outscored 17-3. Matthew Stafford's protection broke down at crucial spots. The running game dried up. And the defense both wore down and, on the final drive, lost its composure.

That's what happened. And so now the Cowboys are headed to Green Bay for a throwback playoff experience.

Maybe they'll make Jerry and his friends sit outside. One can hope.


Sunday, January 4, 2015

Kobe, shaking his fist at kids on his lawn

Now we know Kobe Bryant has passed into senior citizenry, and not just because the eye test tells you he's only a shadow of the player he once was.

Officially now, he's become Back In My Day Man.

Crotchety Old Guy Kobe shook the metaphoric bony fist at the metaphoric kids on his lawn the other day, when he complained that today's American players aren't being taught the fundamentals the way their European brethren are. Big men want to do all this fancy stuff now, but they have no post-up moves on the low block. Not like, ahem, when he was coming up.

I guess it's a function of just how Crotchety an Old Guy I've become when I say I don't disagree with him. Especially when he talks about how AAU ball has contributed mightily to players who are more athletically gifted than ever, but who don't know how to play the game.

"AAU basketball," Kobe said. "Horrible, terrible AAU basketball. It's stupid. It doesn't teach our kids how to play the game at all ..."

I haven't seen enough AAU ball to know just how close to the mark that is. But I've seen enough to know it's likely closer to the mark than is comfortable for some.

 AAU ball does serve a certain purpose: It pits potential blue chippers against players of comparable talent. In that sense, it probably does develop that talent more readily than high school ball, in which potential blue chippers very often are going up against players whose careers won't outlive high school. How much can you really tell about that 6-foot-10 kid when he's posting on a 6-3 kid, other than the fact the 6-10 kid can at least get out of his own way?

But here's where high school ball serves its purpose: It provides structure and at least a base in, yes, the fundamentals. That's because the coaching in high school is focused more on teaching the game than promoting talent, which is why the coaching on the high school level is far better.

Saw this last night at the Carroll Classic, where Homestead's blue-chip big man, Caleb Swanigan, went for 19 points against a Carroll lineup that didn't really have a post player. But Swanigan only went for 19 after becoming more active offensively in the second half; in the first half, a fiercely collapsing Carroll zone kept him in check to the tune of four points on just five shots.

It forced Swanigan to find the open man out of the double-and-triple team, something he does quite well. It's a skill, I imagine, that he's developed more in high school ball than AAU ball, where defense is a rumor and it's all about showcasing individuals. The same no doubt could be said about his post skills, which, like all young post players these days, are a work in progress because big men don't spent nearly as much time with their backs to the basket as they once did.

Whatever Swanigan will learn about that, and about adjusting to defensive schemes designed to target him, he'll learn in the winter, not the summer. And  -- here's the irony -- those skills will ultimately enhance his future value far more than anything he'll get out of AAU ball, which is theoretically designed to do that.

Summer's for show, in other words. But winter, ultimately, is for dough.   

Friday, January 2, 2015

And now ... Rose Bowl Part Deux

Well, this was the long way around the barn.

All this politicking, all this hue and cry and beating the college football pashas briskly about the head and neck until they finally came to their senses ... and what does the playoff system the pashas grudgingly agreed to give us?

A throwback Rose Bowl.

That's what we've got now that Oregon made an oil slick out of Florida State in Rose Bowl I, and Ohio State put an SEC-style beating on Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Now it's the Ducks vs. the Buckeyes in the national championship game -- Big Ten vs. Pac 12, just like the old days -- and all that will be missing will be the Governor's Trophy float and the San Gabriel Mountains shinin' in the late-afternoon sun.

Oregon smoking the Seminoles like a Christmas ham was an easy call, given that the Seminoles were the most counterfeit unbeaten team since Notre Dame two years ago. But Ohio State forcing Nick Saban's legions to play the Buckeyes' game? Who saw that coming?

(OK, so, everybody in Ohio. And Jim Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten. And Urban Meyer, who snickered afterward that maybe the Big Ten wasn't so bad after all, that maybe it was actually pretty good).

Hard to argue that one after the last few days, when not only did the Buckeyes ball-peen the darlings of the SEC, but Wisconsin took down Auburn, another allegedly superior SEC school, and Michigan State came from behind to knock out Baylor. Made a lot of people who were calling the Big Ten a wanna-be Big Five conference look plain silly.

(OK. So it made me look silly).

The bare-wood truth of it is, the SEC is not the pre-eminent power its de facto publicists make it out to be, and the Big Ten clearly isn't just a place where it's cold and no real athletes would dare show their faces. That was starkly evident last night, because there was no discernible difference between Alabama's athletes and Ohio State's. If anything, Ohio State had more. They were clearly the better team from the opening whistle, even while falling down 21-6 early -- and their third-string quarterback (Cardale Jones) was better on the big stage than Alabama's first-teamer (Blake Sims).

The SEC still doesn't have anyone as wretched as Indiana or Purdue on the premises. But its top-tier teams don't have any better athletes than anyone else. Just ask Ohio State about that -- or perhaps TCU, which beat 'Bama-conqueror Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl like it was the junior varsity.

And the national championship game?

Impulse says Oregon. Experience, however, says you snub the Big Ten school at your own risk.