Monday, November 30, 2015

Sunset beckons

Give Kobe Bryant this much: He saw the end far more clearly than some have.

The dimming of the light is never so imperceptible as when you are within its circle, and we have seen the sad results all too often. Think Willie Mays stumbling around the outfield for the Mets. Think Peyton Manning now, hurting and rag-armed and watching some kid named Brock Osweiler beat the Patriots in his stead.

Or, think Kobe, who announced Sunday that he's known for a long time this would be his last season. The fire is gone, he says. The jumpshot is, too.

He acknowledged that his play has been pathetic this season, a statement that only bows to the obvious. He went 4-of-20 Sunday in a loss to the Pacers, a performance that was hardly an anomaly.  So far this season, he's averaging 15.7 points on 31.5 percent shooting, and he's shooting just 19.5 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.

These are not Kobe Bryant numbers. Anita Bryant numbers, perhaps, but not Kobe Bryant numbers.

And so he will step aside after this season, a decision with which he says he's entirely at peace. It has, after all, been a hell of a run. His pro career began in 1996, when he was a teenager. He's 37 now. In between have come five NBA titles, more than 25,000 points, more than 6,000 rebounds and more than 6,000 assists.

Only four players in NBA history have attained all of those last three numbers. So, the Hall of Fame is his next stop.

It has not all been sunshine and roses, of course. The great parlor game with Kobe is how many titles he would have won had he not been such an insufferable ass. He couldn't get along with Shaq, and that probably cost him another couple of titles. He couldn't get along with a succession of players who came after Shaq. By the final years of his career, his presence with the Lakers became something of a reverse selling point, with quality free agents looking elsewhere rather than entertain the prospect of playing with Kobe. Accurate or not, he had a reputation, and it wasn't good.

But history has a habit of obscuring those sorts of things when the numbers are right. And the numbers are beyond any question right.

So is Kobe Bryant's timing.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

A win for the good guys

I could write about Notre Dame this morning, watching its playoff hopes sail away through the uprights on the last play of Stanford 38, Irish 36. I could write, too, about Indiana 54, Purdue 36, Kevin Wilson's program getting bowl eligible and, right before our eyes, turning a corner that has been long in coming.

I could do that.

Instead, I'm going to write about this.

I'm going to write about two men with their arms around each other, one of whom was handed an immense job and did it impeccably, and one who was handed an even more immense job and has so far carried it off just as impeccably.

The first man, the one on the left, is Ernie Bojrab, who was asked last summer to take the reins of one of Indiana's premier high school football programs, because the man  on the right couldn't do it. That man is Chris Svarckopf, smaller and less robust now than we all remember, because hand-to-hand combat with cancer will take it out of you even if you're as tough and stoic a guy as Svarczkopf.

Because of the lymphoma with which he was diagnosed last summer, he had to sit and watch on game nights this year as Bojrab took his Saints on the ride of all their lives, and don't think that wasn't the hardest thing he's ever had to do. But the lymphoma and the chemotherapy to treat it wouldn't wait, and so Svarczkopf -- though he still coached the defensive backs and tight ends in practice -- had to take a literal step or two away on Friday nights, always there but not really there, at least not in the way he always had been.

But what a show he got so see.

The Saints lost to Bishop Luers right out of the gate, and then they never lost again. Beat everybody in a beefed-up SAC. Beat even Snider, which went on to win the state 5A title Friday night. Beat, finally, East Central, 27-3, shutting down one more vaunted offense to hoist their first 4A state championship trophy, and their first in any class since 1991.

It capped a weekend of validation for the SAC, too often dismissed downstate as Indianapolis' poor relation. Not this weekend, it wasn't. This weekend, two Fort Wayne schools won titles, while Indy had to make do with one.

And there, at the end of it all, as he had been all year, was Chris Svarczkopf. With his usual reflexive deference, he downplayed his role as inspiration for his football team's dream autumn, choosing instead to credit his players for writing the real inspirational tale. And crediting Bojrab, of course, for stepping in and pushing the Saints to a place they hadn't seen in almost a quarter century.

Looking at that photo of the two of them now, I'm taken back to a warm night in early September, when I was on the Dwenger sideline at Zollner Stadium working on a freelance piece for Fort Wayne Monthly. I'd come to see how Svarczkopf was handling his step away, see how such a fiercely intense competitor was focusing his intensity on something other than what happened on 100 yards of chewed turf on Friday nights.

He said things were going well. He said he felt pretty good. Then he moved a few yards down the way from his football team, and sat down in red canvas camp chair positioned about the 25-yard line.

"So how hard is this gonna be for you?" I asked.

He folded his thin hands in his lap and answered without taking his eyes off the field.

"Well, we're about to find out," he said.

Damned if he didn't.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

SAC attack

And so, to reiterate: The Blob prides itself on not being particularly provincial.

Except when it is.

Which brings us to last night, and a moment that should bring out the provincialism in all of us who call the Fort home. The moment happened with eight seconds to play in the Class 5A state championship football game last night, when Isaac Stiebeling of Snider wormed his way into the end zone to give Snider a preposterous 64-61 lead in a football game that had already been preposterous.

The Panthers, after all, once led No. 1 and undefeated New Palestine 42-14. Preposterous.

The Dragons proceeded to score 35 straight points to take a 49-42 lead. Preposterous.

The Panthers then rallied for the victory, winning head coach Kurt Tippmann his first state title, Snider its first in 23 years, and everyone outside of Bishop Luers in the Summit Athletic Conference its first since Wayne won the 4A title in 1995.


Even more preposterous, however, than winning a football title by a basketball score -- a not all-that-rare circumstance in a world where no level of football below the NFL plays defense anymore -- was that the Panthers did it against a football team that was as close to a mortal lock as you get on the high school level.  Under head coach Kyle Ralph, the Dragons had won 41 of their last 42 games, and showed no inclination to stop now.

Except, of course, they did.

So raise a cheer for Snider, and for the SAC in general. It's a strong conference that only got stronger when Homestead and Carroll came aboard this season -- and if Bishop Dwenger can follow Snider's lead tonight and win the 4A title, it'll own two of the state's 12 state championships this fall.

And that's well worth getting provincial about.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Haunted still

Those of us of a certain bent watched football yesterday, and we will watch more today and tomorrow and Sunday. It's what we do in America on a weekend given over to being thankful, even if the thanks are sometimes less about substance and more about seconds.

Never once do we give thanks that we're not one of the poor dopes we're watching between courses.

Never once -- or hardly ever -- do we wonder about the guy who lands on his head out there, or lowers his head and drives hard into another helmeted skull, or cartwheels over the goal line, the way Cam Newton did yesterday to a whole lot of oohs and aahs, at least in the living room I was occupying.

I never once stopped to think what Cam Newton's life will be like 20 years from now, after he's finished cartwheeling over goal lines or taking on tacklers. No one stops to think about that. And that is what the National Football League is counting on.

It's counting on entertainment trumping the ghost that haunts it, which this week was the ghost of Frank Gifford. In a comparatively small item lost in the tumult and shouting of Thanksgiving Day, it was revealed that Gifford's brain, examined post-mortem, showed signs of CTE, the degenerative malady that has been found in the brains of so many former NFL players who've died too soon, afflicted with early-onset dementia. That it's directly related to all of the Sunday afternoons (and Saturday afternoons, and Friday nights) in those players' lives is beyond any question.

In other words: The concussion thing is not going to go away for the NFL, no matter how much we ooh and aah over Cam Newton. It's going to be the dark presence gliding just below the surface of the glitter show, occasionally rearing its head the way it did this week -- and not just in the quiet item about Frank Gifford.

Last Sunday, for instance, a St. Louis Rams quarterback named Case Keenum was slammed hard to the turf on a pass play, and everyone except the people who were charged with doing so knew his brain got the worst of it. You could see his head ricochet off the ground, for one thing. Then he grabbed his head. Then he stayed on his knees for awhile, clearly woozy.

Finally he got to his feet and literally wobbled around out there, like a fighter climbing off the deck after catching a particularly thunderous left hook.

And yet, somehow, no one thought it would be a good idea to get him out of the game.

Not his head coach, Jeff Fisher. Not the trainers specifically charged with enforcing the league's concussion protocols. Not anyone.

And so Keenum stayed in the game, and you were left to wonder if the league's belated attempt to safeguard its players was a futile exercise. Protocols are weak sauce when matched up against athletes who continue to get bigger and faster and stronger. And so you were also left to wonder just when Keenum would begin forgetting things, like where he'd left his car keys or where he lived or how to feed himself.

Twenty years? Thirty years? Sooner than that?

Questions with no answers. Because the game in all its glory will march on, regardless of what happens to Case Keenum or Frank Gifford or any of its sad victims. We'll watch. We'll cheer. And if we think about the cost, about the carnage, it will only be fleetingly.

The NFL is counting on it. Because, in the end, what choice does it really have?

It's not like anyone can do anything about it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Deja lose

This is not the Hawaiian getaway Tom Crean likely envisioned, sun and sand and palm trees notwithstanding. He's half a world away from Bloomington, but this morning he no doubt felt the seat he occupies there warming up again. He's used to that by now, but still.

Still, it would have been nice to get past Thanksgiving without awakening the crowd.

That perpetually annoyed segment of Indiana's basketball fan base could not have been pleased with what it saw last night, when the Hoosiers -- freshly risen to No. 13 in the latest polls -- tripped and fell from their new perch. They had unranked Wake Forest down by eight with less than five minutes to play, and then they didn't. A missed 3-pointer here, a missed 3 there, a little turnstile defense somewhere else -- and before long, the buzzer was sounding on an 82-78 loss that felt all the worse for its suddenness.

And for the way it happened, which seemed awfully familiar.

This was supposed to be an Indiana team that would not live and die on the perimeter, but once again last night it lived -- and ultimately died -- on the perimeter. James Blackmon and Yogi Ferrell, the engines of the Hoosiers' outside game, missed 14 of 19 shots overall and eight of nine 3s. That pointed the way for Indiana to 26-of-60 shooting overall and 10-of-29 from the arc.

Live by the 3, die by the 3. Same storyline, different day.

This would be easier to take if not for the arrival of Thomas Bryant, the presumptive solution to Indiana's deficiency on the low blocks. Bryant did take eight rebounds, but the Hoosiers were out-boarded 43-30. Their second leading rebounder was Ferrell, with seven. That looked disturbingly like last year, when the guards had to go hard to the glass to give Indiana any sort of presence there.

And so, let the low grumbling begin. Low for now, anyway. 

A few brief thoughts on NFL Week 11

And now this week's installment of The NFL In So Many Words, the Blob feature National Geographic hails as "the missing link between cave drawings and hieroglyphics" and "compelling reading except for the lame Phoenician jokes":

1. Brock Osweiler is ...

2. Sammy Baugh.

3. Johnny Unitas.

4. Brock Osweiler.

5. Matt Hasselbeck is ...

6. The real Andrew Luck.

7. 67.

8. Matt Hasselbeck.  

9. The Bengals!

10. Wouldn't have lost (again!) if they had Tony Romo, the greatest quarterback in the entire history of quarterbacks, and the man who's going to singlehandedly lead the Cowboys to 15 gazillion straight wins and the Supe-- oh, never mind.

Monday, November 23, 2015

No Busch league here

OK, first of all: Yes, the rumors are true. I was right.

(Last time it happened: 1975)

I was right, Kyle Busch was the man to put your chips on if it came down to one race, which is what NASCAR's endlessly tweaked playoff system finally does. And that's a good thing. Not everyone thinks so, but it is.

Found that out in a Twitter exchange with a couple of people, who seemed to think it was a joke that a man who broke his leg before the season even started should have had a shot at winning the title anyway. Apparently, because he missed the first 11 races, Busch was supposed to spend the rest of the season driving around out there to no real purpose. Sorry, son, but them's the breaks. Pun intended.

But NASCAR rightly gave Busch a waiver that exempted him from the rule that says a driver must compete in every race to be eligible for the Chase. That rule, NASCAR explained, was never intended to punish a driver who, through no fault of his own, was forced onto the sideline due to injury. Thus the waiver, of which Busch took full advantage.

He went on to win four races in the regular season and then the season finale Sunday at Homestead, sealing his first Sprint Cup title. No one besides Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson, who each won six races, won more than Busch. And even at that, NASCAR decreed he still had to finish in the top 30 in points to get into the Chase, even though he had only 15 races to do it.

This does not sound like NASCAR gave him some kind of freebie. Strangely, opinions on this varied.

For some, the fact Busch was allowed a waiver somehow became NASCAR changing the rules in midseason, even though it didn't. A waiver is not "changing the rules." The rules remained the same for Busch as for any Chase contender. He got in on ability and results, not on a hall pass from the principal.

Look. I have my issues with NASCAR. I think its product is sometimes manipulated, particularly in regard to on-track and off-track feuding. In that regard, I think punishing drivers for doing what you have implicitly endorsed is, to say the least, a bit two-faced.

(Not that I entirely buy some of the "feuds." The only thing phonier than a NASCAR driver brawl is a baseball brawl)

That said ... I think Busch won this title on his own merit. No farce was involved -- unless you consider the New York Giants winning the 2012 Super Bowl after going 9-7 in the regular season a farce, too.

Like the Giants, Busch had to first make the playoffs, then win the playoffs. He did. No one made everyone else pull over so he could go past. No one gave him more points for winning a race than anyone else got. He beat the people he had to beat when he had to beat them. What else is there?

So, no, this result is not a joke. But to have kept him out of the Chase when he was demonstrably one of the top 16 performers in the 2015 regular season?

Now that would have been a joke.


Sunday, November 22, 2015

Notre Dame vs. the Poll

Look, I don't know if Notre Dame makes the College Football Playoff or not. What am I, an expert in mathematical theory?

All I know is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Irish (lotta green in those unis, guys ... lotta green) jacked around and won again last night, schlepping past 3-8 Boston College 19-16 in Fenway Park. They've been doing a lot of that lately, the Irish. They win, but they don't wow. Stuff happens, and at the end of 60 minutes of football, they've somehow beaten Wake Forest 28-7. Or Georgia Tech 30-22. Or USC, which had just fired its coach, 41-31.

Wins, sure, and some against decent opposition. Beating a really good Navy team by 17 was impressive. Beating a decent Pitt team by 12 was. Squeaking past a good but not as good as its record Temple team 24-20 ... not so much.

But you know what?

I'm crazy enough to suspect that when it all shakes out, the Irish will be In.

A lot of that is based on what happened in Columbus, Ohio, last night, when an old rival, Michigan State, did Notre Dame an immense favor. The Spartans beat Ohio State 17-14 on the last play of the game, thereby knocking the Buckeyes out of the top four. And the Buckeyes were due. They've been schlepping themselves all season, beating the bargain-basement portion of their schedule but making everyone suspect, at bottom, they really weren't all that good.

And so, last night. And so, Urban Meyer for some unaccountable reason giving the football to Ezekiel Elliott only 12 times. And so, goodbye, Buckeyes.

And so ... if Notre Dame can beat Stanford to finish 11-1, you have to like its chances. Because Oklahoma State got swatted by Baylor last night, so there goes that potential entrant. Because it's gonna be Michigan State and unbeaten Iowa in the Big Ten title game, and there are a lot of people out there who think the Hawkeyes aren't as unbeaten as they look. So if Michigan State beats them, that takes the Big Ten out of the equation.

Which leaves Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Notre Dame.

Of course, if Iowa wins ...

Then it's down to the Big Ten vs. Notre Dame. And I can't see the committee taking a one-loss Notre Dame team over an undefeated Big Ten champion.

At which point, I can already hear the people who've been saying for years that Notre Dame should join the Big Ten saying, "Told ya so."

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Your provincial moment for today

I've never been one for blatant pompon waving. The Blob has always held to the philosophy of No Cheering In the Pressbox, even if it's not, technically, a pressbox, and even if cheering is allowed if  the Blob feels like it, because, well, it's my Blob.

That said, here's your two-bits, four-bits for today: Hooray for the Summit Athletic Conference.

Conventional wisdom back in August was that it was getting a significant upgrade this fall with Homestead and Carroll joining the fold, and nothing that's happened since has dispelled any of that. Two SAC schools are headed to Lucas Oil Stadium for state championship games next week, which means there'll be more Fort Wayne schools there than Indianapolis schools. And that, friends, happens, like, never.

And should unbeaten Woodlan take down Whiting tonight in the 2A semistate, there'll be three Allen County teams playing downstate next week.

So sis-boom-bah, and all that, for the Snider Panthers and Bishop Dwenger Saints, who both cruised last night against overmatched opponents. The Saints hammered South Bend St. Joe 41-7 in the 4A semistate, and Snider ball-peened Kokomo 56-20 in the 5A game. Neither result was particularly unexpected; St. Joe was 8-5 coming in, having upset No. 1 Lowell in the regional, and Kokomo, while undefeated, plays in the chronically underwhelming North Central Conference.

Now the Saints get 12-2 East Central and Snider gets the winner between Castle  and 5A behemoth New Palestine, the defending state champion and overwhelming favorite to repeat. And if you're the Blob, you're shamelessly rooting for both the locals.

You root for Dwenger because of Chris Svarczkopf, the Saints' coach and all-around stand-up guy who's watched this season from the sideline as he battles lymphoma, and to whom the Saints have dedicated their season.  And you root for Snider because of its coach, Kurt Tippmann, another standup guy who's taken Snider to the championship game twice now in the last four years.

Mostly, though, you root for them out of sheer provincialism. Two champions out of Fort Wayne would be an absolute tonic not only for high school football in these parts, but everywhere that's weary of Indianapolis' dominance of the landscape.

Indy will always get its moments, because it's Indy. But the Fort needs a moment once in awhile, too.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Nickname games

So the news out of North Dakota -- and how often do you get to say "news out of North Dakota"? -- is that the University of North Dakota has chosen a new nickname, after the NCAA banned the old one (Fighting Sioux) when it banned all Native American nicknames/logos/mascots, with a few notable exceptions.

This was the right thing to do on account of most of those nicknames/logos/mascots are racist as hell, unless of course you're Washington Football Team owner Daniel Snyder and either can't see that or come up with lame excuses for it. We're sorry you're insulted, but these three Native Americans over here aren't, so screw you!

That sort of thing.

Anyway ... North Dakota has come up with a new nickname, and it is, predictably, pretty lame itself. The Fighting Hawks was plucked from thousands of public entries, beating out "Roughriders" and the completely idiotic "Nodaks" in the finals. It's about as vanilla as you can get without actually being the Fighting Vanillas.

Much more entertaining were some of the other suggestions, helpfully listed by Deadspin in its item about the new nickname. Topping my personal list of faves was one submission from a fan and/or student from rival North Dakota State, who suggested "A------s From Grand Forks" because that's what NDSU fans/students call UND.

There were others. One person with a clear sense of North Dakota suggested "Desolate Wastelanders." Some film buff suggested "Fannings" (Dakota Fanning ... get it?).  Someone else suggested turning the Fighting Sioux on its head and calling North Dakota's teams the "Custer Busters." And one wickedly ironic individual suggested the "Fighting Apaches."


I'd have leaned toward something like the North Dakota Fightin' Windchills. Or the North Dakota Woodchippers (a nod to the film "Fargo"). Or the North Dakota Bleeping Bleep My Hands Are Frostbitten Again's.

Fighting Hawks?

Meh. All you can say for that is at least it has the word "Fighting" in it, which adheres to my theory that no matter how lame a nickname, you can instantly make it viable by adding the word "Fightin'" or "Fighting" to it.

The name of my fantasy football team, after all, is the "Fightin' Hammocks."


Done dirty

I feel sorry for Kevin McHale, and not just because I had a beer with him once, years ago, on the occasion of his induction to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

That was in 1999, and McHale stopped by a post-induction party hosted by the contingent that had come east to witness the induction of Fort Wayne Pistons owner Fred Zollner. I tagged along. Still one of the great weekends ever.

But that's not why I feel sorry for Kevin McHale.

I feel sorry for him because the Houston Rockets pink-slipped him the other day 11 games into an NBA season that lasts longer than the Ming Dynasty. They were, I believe, a game out of the last playoff spot, with only 71 games left to make up the difference. Clearly it was time to panic and eighty-six the coach who, five months ago, got the Rockets to the conference finals.

Even that bit of fuzzy-headed logic, however, is not why I really feel sorry for Kevin McHale. I feel sorry for him because he was coaching a bunch of laydown artists who clearly didn't want him around anymore.

Oh, they all say the right things about him now, but actions speak louder than words. And so last night, in their first game without McHale, the Rockets finally decided to start the season a dozen games late.

James Harden, who had done nothing for 11 games, suddenly erupted for 45 points, eight rebounds, 11 assists and five steals.

Dwight Howard, who had also done nothing, took 19 rebounds.

Trevor Ariza, who had also done nothing (sense a theme here?) went for 18 points.

And the Rockets beat the Trail Blazers in overtime 108-103.

What this illustrates, yet again, is just how precarious life is in the NBA if you have the misfortune to be a coach and not a player. It is, surprise, surprise, an entirely player-run enterprise. And if the players decide for whatever reason they feel uninspired by the man holding the greaseboard, it doesn't matter if that man is some genetic mutation of Bob Knight, John Wooden and Red Auerbach. He's toast on a stick.

And so, McHale is gone despite all his good works of five months ago. Bernie Bickerstaff's kid is the coach now. How long he lasts will depend entirely on how adept he is at getting out of the way of his players. And even then, a mere shift in the locker room mood that has nothing whatsoever to do with him could end him.

Makes me marvel all the more at the genius (and longevity) of guys like Gregg Popovich. Makes me wonder why any prominent college coach in his right mind would want to make the jump to the League, no matter how fat a pile of cash was laid before him.

"We're going to miss him being around," Howard said of McHale when the win was in the books last night.

Amazingly, some people probably thought he meant it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Exit lines

I refuse to believe this is where they turn out the lights on Peyton Manning.

I refuse to believe, as some people do, that he simply fades to black now, even though he is tired and wounded and betrayed by a body that will no longer do what an incomparable mind commands. His head can still make all the throws, still defeat any blitz, still unmask any disguise of coverage. His arm, sadly, cannot.

The last we saw of him he was all but tottering off the field last Sunday, unable to throw an out route that didn't flutter like a windblown leaf. His latest injury -- a partially torn plantar muscle in his left foot -- had deprived him of the ability to push off on his plant foot. He's also got a banged-up shoulder. He's also got as ribcage as battered as a child's xylophone.

He is hurt, in on other words, and old beyond his years, and clearly coming up on the end. There are serious people seriously saying right now that his backup, the undistinguished Brock Osweiler, has taken his job for keeps. If so, that is an exit too painful to contemplate for one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, and one of the greatest human beings as well.

Peyton Manning standing on the sidelines while Brock Osweiler plays. Who wants to see that?

And so, I refuse to believe it.

I believe Peyton will be back, just like he came back from the four neck surgeries everyone said was the end of him. I believe he will find some way to make his body do what his mind commands one last time. I believe the Broncos will find a way to run the football a little, which will deprive defenses of the ability to simply sit on the narrowing range of things Peyton can still do, which will give him one last fighting chance to go out the way he deserves.

Which is, as some semblance of the Peyton we all remember. Which is, as something besides what he is now, a faded relic limping toward the finish as Brock Osweiler's understudy.

I refuse to believe that's how it ends for him. I refuse to believe there isn't at least one more shining moment out there to usher Peyton toward the first-ballot induction into Canton that is his clear destiny.

Of course, I used to believe in Santa Claus, too.

A lesson in courage

So what does courage look like?

Legitimate question these days now that we're seeing so much of the opposite in a nation that fancies itself the moral light of the world.

And so today, if you want to see what courage looks -- and sounds like -- take a gander at this. It was the scene in Wembley Stadium in England last night as England and France met in a soccer friendly less than a week after meeting in Paris the night the terrorist jackals launched a frontal assault on human civilization.

Barely four days later, an arch in the French colors of red, white and blue soared over Wembley. Beneath, French and English fans stood together, bellowing La Marseillaise. The French tri-color flew from every corner of the place. Two nations who have fought one another a thousand times across a thousand years stood shoulder-to-shoulder and told the Islamic State what it could do with its dark and barbaric ideology.

And you know the most stirring thing of all?

According to, in light of the attacks last week, fans were offered refunds if they decided to stay away. Less than 100 took organizers up on it. In fact, 10,000 more tickets were sold.

Meanwhile, in the United States, almost 30 governors, including Indiana's, decided to bar Syrian refugees -- men, women and children fleeing tyranny -- from their respective states.

In other words, there would be no room in the inn for these Middle Eastern pilgrims.

In further other words, almost 30 state governors allowed fear and political gamesmanship to subvert the better angels of American nature.

Land of the free, home of the brave?

Sorry, folks. You took a wrong turn. That's on the other side of the Atlantic now.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A few brief thoughts on NFL Week 10

And now this week's edition of The NFL In So Many Words, the Blob feature barred from entering 42 states because "We're scared" and "Who knows what's hiding behind that sentence? It could be a terrorist!":

1. The Bengals!

2. (Crickets)

3. I said, THE BENGALS!

4. (More crickets)

5. Because, the Browns.

6. (Knock out Landry Jones so they can get torched by Ben Roethlisberger)

7. Hey, look! The Giants are gonna beat the Patriots!

8. (Yet more crickets)

9. Will the last uninjured player in the NFL please raise his hand?

10. (Thunderous fusillade of crickets).

Monday, November 16, 2015


So what are we to make of Holly Holm beating up the allegedly unbeatup-able Ronda Rousey, and doing it with unbecoming ease?

Well, first of all, the worst part of it was that somewhere Floyd Mayweather was likely doing this.

Anyone with an ounce of decency hates the idea of a woman-beating punk like Mayweather getting the last laugh at any time, but especially at the expense of a woman. The best that can be said of it is that Rousey set herself up for it by claiming she could beat Mayweather in a fight, a plainly absurd notion that ignored what got exposed for all the world to see Saturday night.

Which is, overwhelming as she is when she gets someone on the mat, she's easy pickings for an accomplished boxer.

That was Holm's background and that's why she knocked Rousey cold, and didn't really break much of a sweat doing it. And so one shudders at what would happen if Rousey actually did get in a ring with Mayweather, perhaps the greatest pound-for-pound boxer in the world. The suspicion before Saturday was that she'd last until Floyd landed a punch. That suspicion is far more than that now.

Plainly speaking she was at a loss against someone who could stick and move, not all that shocking considering Rousey's background is mostly judo and wrestling. She's not great against someone who knows how to land a punch. And Holm knew how to land a punch.

It's something all of us (me included) overlooked as we watched Rousey ho-hum her way to one victory after another. In that regard, it very much reminded you of another titanic pugilistic upset, in which a journeyman named Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson one night. As with Rousey, we we were all so entranced by Tyson's utter dominance of a landscape of tomato cans we failed to take into consideration what would happen if someone actually hit Iron Mike back.

What happened was, he went down and out. As did Rousey. And once again we were reminded of the thing that makes sports great: No one is indestructible. Everyone goes down eventually.

Finally four

And now we interrupt a hobbled Peyton Manning hobbling sadly to the bench ... and the Lions taking us back to the days of George Bush the First ... and the New York Football Giants letting the New England Patriots off the hook with several stellar acts of charity.

We interrupt all of that to bring you four names.

 Harvick. Truex. Busch. Gordon.

That's your Final Four in the NASCAR Chase, which, yes, is still going on. There's one race left, at Homestead (Fla.) next week. One of the four names above is going to win the Cup.

Sentiment wants Jeff Gordon, because there is nothing history loves so much as symmetry, and there would be nothing more perfectly symmetrical, history-wise, than for Gordon to win his fifth NASCAR Cup title in the last race of his illustrious career.

Sentiment wants Gordon, and storytellers want Truex. In 12 years as a Cup driver, he's never finished higher than 11th in the standings. He's won only three times in 368 starts. He's stood by his girlfriend the last two years as she's battled ovarian cancer. And he drives not for Penske or Rick Hendrick or Joe Gibbs or Jack Roush, but for a one-car team out of Denver.

He is, in short, the ultimate underdog. Which means if he wins, the story writes itself.

Unfortunately I don't think he's going to win. Gordon, either.

The smart money says it'll be Harvick, the defending champion, because he's dominated all season and he's done it before. My money, though, is on Busch.

Yeah, he's a brat. Yeah, nobody likes him. But if I had to pick one guy to win one race, it would be him. No one in NASCAR turns a wheel the way he does. And no one runs at a checkered flag the way he does.

So: Busch it is.

But I'll be rooting for Gordon. Or Truex.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Losing proposition

So it's come to this now for the Indiana Hoosiers: Faint praise is the element in which they work best.

And they are thoroughly damned by it.

Another week, another Saturday in which they played a top-shelf team off its feet -- and another valiant effort ending in another loss. And now that the losses have mounted to six in a row, and have left the Hoosiers 0-6 in the Big Ten and 4-6 overall, what is the best we can say of them?

That they are the best 4-6 team in the nation. Faint praise that damns again.

They have an NFL quarterback and an NFL running back who shredded No. 14 Michigan for 238 yards yesterday -- the vaunted UM rushing D looked like the phoniest of mirages against Jordan Howard -- and it all came to naught. The Hoosiers had Michigan beaten, and then they didn't, just like they had No. 1 Ohio State beaten and then didn't. Just like they had Michigan State lined up until three touchdowns in the last eight minutes took it away, and just like they had No. 9 Iowa eyeball-to-eyeball before losing by a touchdown.

Conclusion: This is a football team that can play with almost anyone now. It just can't beat them. And given what Indiana football has mostly been before, that's progress.

Just not enough.

Just not enough, because the defense still isn't good enough to stop good teams for 60 minutes. It can do it in spurts. It can do it in stretches. But down at the end, when Michigan had to score, the Wolverines scored with unbecoming ease. The two touchdowns it scored in overtime came on passes to receivers who weren't even breathed upon, let alone covered.

And so, here the Hoosiers are: 4-6, a better football team than that, but still 4-6. They could still win out and get to some kind of half-assed bowl game, and if that happens they'll likely destroy whatever matching 6-6 team they go up against. But both their remaining games are road games, at Maryland and at Purdue. Of the two, Maryland seems the more likely team to hand Indiana its seventh loss and knock it out of the bowls.

In which case, it will be the eighth straight year Indiana has failed to play in a bowl. And, of course, the 24th straight year it failed to win one.

Now matter how good a 5-7 team it winds wind up being.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Death in the evening

I never thought about it, to be honest. And that was not because I was naïve or mindless or disconnected from the world in which I lived, from its insanity and its bloodlust and all the thundering consequence of its too-often blind history.

No, in 38 years as a sportswriter -- 38 years in which my job dictated my presence in large, open, public spaces -- I never dwelled on what could happen. I never dwelled on what would happen if this was the day when jackal terrorists hit the Super Bowl or the Final Four or the Indianapolis 500, because dwelling on it wouldn't stop it from happening. And I knew nothing much could stop it from happening, short of becoming the sort of police state that would, in the end, merely fulfill all  the jackals' goals.

And which, in the end, wouldn't keep us "safe" from them anyway. Whatever that word means anymore.

I never thought about it. But, of course, we are all compelled to think about it this morning, in the wake of the jackals' attack on one of the world's grand cities, Paris.

 One hundred twenty-seven are dead this morning, and the jackals are capering in glee. That's because, as always, they hit us where it hurts. Barbarians to the core of their being, they hit what they hate most, which is civilization. And so they struck places where people were just living their lives: cafes and a concert hall and, yes, right outside an athletic stadium, where the national sides of France and Germany were playing a soccer friendly.

Several explosions went off outside the stadium, and everyone inside flinched. The miracle is that's all they did. The game went on. The spectators spectated. It was the only small victory on a night when civilization took one right in the solar plexus.

And today, of course, there will be those who will insist on helping the jackals finish that work. The usual suspects will invoke the usual themes: Close the borders, buy more guns, lock up all the Muslims, send ground troops back into the Middle East. Repeat a lot of the same mistakes that gave the Islamic State life to begin with.

 And if by doing all those things we might -- might -- be able to destroy it ... what next?

Because, in the Middle East, something will always be next. And it will almost always be worse than what came before it.

So what's the solution?

I don't know that there is one, or at least a permanent one. Those things are far above my pay grade. What I do know is this: You do anything you can to fight the jackals without abandoning what made you the nation or nations they so hate. You keep going to the cafes. You keep going to the concert halls. You keep going to the soccer stadiums. You maintain civilization, and you do it without fear.

Yes, that will occasionally make you vulnerable to what happened in Paris. But the reason terrorism is so effective is that nothing you can do -- again, short of becoming the sort of police state that betrays all your principles as a free nation -- can entirely protect you from it. The crazy with the bomb will always find a way no matter how totalitarian you choose to become.

I never thought about it.

I never thought about it even when I stood in line for half an hour going through security at the Super Bowl. Or passed through a metal detector every time I went in and out of the media center at the U.S. Grand Prix. Or sat in packed stadiums and arenas liked a sitting duck.

This is not because I was naïve or mindless or disconnected from the world. It's because, well, screw the barbarians.

Screw 'em.


Thursday, November 12, 2015

In luck. Or not.

Well, at least it wasn't a lacerated kidney or anything.

Oh ... wait ...

Oh, wait, because that's all Andrew Luck can do, now that he's sidelined by the sort of injury people used to sustain only in high-speed car crashes. If there was any doubt previously that the level of violence in today's NFL is pushing the limit of what the human body can withstand, it's what happened last Sunday, when Luck was slammed to the Lucas Oil Stadium turf with sufficient force to lacerate a kidney. And we're left to wonder if Luck's previous injuries -- i.e., the cracked ribs no one wants to talk about  -- either contributed to the latest injury, or out-and-out caused it.

It's a toxic equation the NFL presents these days: Young men too tough for their own good (and no one's tougher than Luck) plus ever-escalating foot-pounds of force equals ever-escalating injuries, in both frequency and severity. You wonder how much longer this can be sustained.

What you don't wonder, in Luck's specific case, is whether or not he will be back. Again, he's a tough kid. And so while the Colts' hopeful estimate that he'll be out a month seems optimistic given projections that it takes an average of two months for a lacerated kidney to heal, expect to see Luck on the field again before the season's out.

Whether or not he should be is another question entirely.

Here's the thing: Even without Luck, Indy's situation is hardly dire. Matt Hasselbeck is 2-0 this year subbing for Luck. And he's going to win a few more now, because what lies ahead is hardly Everest.

The Colts' final seven opponents, after all, have a won-loss record of 24-34. Throw out Atlanta and Pittsburgh, and it's 13-27.

So they'll be fine. In fact, you can pencil them into the playoffs right now, given that they play in the AFC South, an NFL division in theory only. You go 6-10 there, and you make the playoffs laughing.

The Colts, at 4-5, will clear that standard easily. And so the question becomes, how eager should the Colts be to rush Luck back onto the field?

Arguably, he's already taken the worst hammering of any QB in the league this year. That has a cumulative effect. And so if Hasselbeck's got them humming, why push your luck with Luck?

Of course, if Hasselbeck goes down ...

Well. Let's not dynamite that bridge 'til we come to it.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Remembrance and forgetting

Andrew Luck's lacerated kidney can wait. Today is about a different wound.

Today is about the wounds that happened when the country wasn't looking, or had lost interest, or had given up trying to understand why the wounds were happening. It's about boys who went off to what they thought would be a great adventure, and came home old men, shattered and hollow-eyed and haunted for the rest of their days by what that great adventure turned out to be instead. It's about scars both visible and otherwise, and the thanks of a grateful nation that often is too busy to thank and too self-absorbed to be grateful.

Today, for me, will always be about what happened at 11 a.m. on  Nov. 11, 1918, when the guns fell silent and the war that did not turn out to end all wars ended. We call it Veteran's Day now, and it's 24 hours when we stop to think about all those aforementioned boys and what they did for us. But before that it was Armistice Day -- the end of the first industrial war in history, and the war that taught us there was no savagery we could not inflict on one another, or even on the Earth itself.

I think about the First World War on this day because this day is not only about remembrance, it's about forgetting, too, because by choosing a day to remember our veterans we acknowledge there are many other days when we choose not to. And nowhere is the forgetting more total, at least in America, than it is on the battlefields of the First World War.

I had the great good fortune to tour some of those battlefields a decade ago, and what struck me about it is how much better the French remember what America did on those fields than we do. If the Korean War goes down in history as the Forgotten War, some of its veterans at least are still around to remind us of its particular horrors. I have talked to some of those veterans -- my uncle, Thomas Huffman, is one of them -- and like veterans of every war they have their stories. Some of them they choose to share; some they cannot bring themselves to, nor likely ever will.

But if the Korean War is the Forgotten War, the First World War is the Obliterated War. All of its veterans, after all, are gone. And America's involvement, from a practical standpoint, lasted only about six months.  And so it's easy to forget that in that half-a-and-year, more American soldiers died than in any war in our history besides the Second World War and Civil War.

The dead are buried beneath plain white crosses in symmetrical rows all over the old Western Front, and the grounds are lovingly kept by the United States government. The living, if they survived the German machine guns and the influenza pandemic that followed, came home to first honor and then forgetting. Because the politicians botched the peace, it would have to be done all over again 20 years later -- and so the veterans of World War I simply became a warmup act, while the veterans of World War II became The Greatest Generation.

And yet if you drive east out of Paris for a couple of hours to Verdun, then drive south to St. Mihiel or north to the Argonne Forest, the landscape itself will not let you forget what happened here between 1914 and 1918. The trenches remain, head-high in places. The grass and trees have grown back, but the terrain beneath them is still a rollercoaster of old shellholes. Here and there, in the wheat fields, are the crumbling remains of old German pillboxes. Here and there, on the old battlefields, are signs in English, French and German, warning you not to get off the path. The ground here, it seems, is still stuffed with unexploded shells that have been sleeping there for a century.

It's why France can't ever forget the Great War. And it's why they'll never forget what the Americans did for them here; in one town deep within the St. Mihiel Salient, there is a statue of an American doughboy, and a street whose name is a date: September 12. It commemorates the date the Americans liberated the town after four years of German occupation.

Not far away, atop an escarpment called Montsec, there is a gleaming marble rotunda. It surveys the old salient, and is visible for miles. It was erected by the United States in 1931 to honor the Americans' first official victory of the war.

On the day we were there, we were the only visitors. Our English guide explained that's the way it usually is. American tourists, he said, hardly ever come here. Like the war itself, it simply isn't on their radar.

Something to remember, perhaps, on this day when we honor the sacrifices made there and everywhere else in our name.

Something to remember every day.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A few brief thoughts on NFL Week 9

And now this week's edition of The NFL In So Many Words, the Blob feature roundly condemned by closet Starbucks operatives as "anti-Christmas" so that Starbucks can get its name on the Blob and sell more coffee:

1. Aqib Talib didn't do it on purpose.

2. No, really.

3.  No, really. Two out of three Stooges agree.

4. Hey, where'd this Andrew Luck guy come from?

5. And that guy! Doesn't he kinda look like Jay Cutler?

6. (Except, you know, he's not throwing the ball to the wrong team and stuff)

7. Why, yes, the Carolina Panthers are undefeated. So good of you to notice.

8. Finally.

9. Speaking of which ... the Bengals!

10. Only beat the Browns, but still!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Where power resides

The young man starving himself couldn't do it. The growing number of both student and faculty protestors couldn't do it. Not even the governor could do it, although his two cents were probably the nudge that ended it all.

And it is ended, finally. The president of the University of Missouri, Tim Wolfe, is officially out, resigning today in the wake of a rising tide of unrest over his handling -- or, rather, his lack of handling -- of a series of racial incidents on campus.

One more testament to the obvious: That King Football reigns over Big Five universities to a degree none will admit, because admitting it would expose the fiction that football serves the academic mission of the university rather than the other way around.

It was, after all, King Football that toppled Wolfe. Young Jonathan Butler's hunger strike aside, the protests over Wolfe's soft-pedaling aside, it took 30 black football players deciding to walk off the job to bring matters to a head. Wolfe goes or we don't play, the players said -- and when the coaching staff backed them rather than crush the rebellion, Wolfe was finished.

It's been a lousy year on the gridiron for Missouri, but the economic clout wielded by football still thunders loudest there. The game is a purely corporate enterprise at the Missouri's of the world -- you can no longer deny it without sounding foolish -- and its prerogatives have become the university's prerogatives to a startling degree. And so when the help decides to shut it down, attention must be paid.

It is, after all, quite the barrel over which a Missouri finds itself when the serfs revolt. If you go all Henry Ford on them -- bring in the strikebreakers, throw the malcontents off the premises -- you as much as acknowledge what you cannot possibly acknowledge: That football at your university indeed functions like any major business anywhere, and your "student-athletes" are in fact indistinguishable from any other workforce. And so you pretty much are forced to acquiesce, at least to some degree.

Or, in Wolfe's case, to the nth degree. When the football players threw in with everyone else, that was the end of him. And it should have been. If you sit by and do nothing while students yell the N-word at members of the Legion of Black Collegians ... when you downplay swastikas smeared in feces on the bathroom wall of a residence hall ... you deserve whatever grief comes down on your head.

You deserve to have the real power on campus -- King Football -- swing its claw hammer. And to be forced to acknowledge it by quitting.


Out of nowhere

OK. So maybe it was all Pep Hamilton's fault.

Surely something exited with him when the Colts ousted him last week, and what arrived in its place was the football team everyone thought it saw back in the innocence of August. Andrew Luck, missing for weeks, returned to kick his pale imitator to the curb. The Colts ran the football on the best defense in the NFL. That defense, in turn, completely lost its composure down the stretch -- a startling reversal of fortunes for a Colts team whose own composure has too often been sorely lacking.

And so Colts 27, Denver 24, and for once fate didn't poke the Horseshoes in the eye. That was Denver defensive back Aqib Talib who did that, the signature moment for a defense that fell apart down the stretch while Peyton Manning stood on the sideline looking predictably dour.

The unkindest cut: The Bronco D's unraveling robbed Manning of the chance to break Brett Favre's all-time passing yardage record in the city where he is still beloved. He came up three yards short.

It was the kind of foul turn of events we've grown accustomed to seeing from the Colts, who may have at least glimpsed a corner we might have seen coming had we been more astute. All the turmoil in their camp last week obscured the home truth that change frequently does a football team much good, at least in the short term. And so dumping Hamilton and bringing in Rob Chudzinski should have been a sign that this would be a different team on Sunday -- as did the players-only meeting widely viewed as a desperate attempt to keep the Titanic from foundering.

Think about it: How many times do you see a team rally after one of those clear-the-air sessions, at least momentarily?

And so the real significance of yesterday, moving forward, is not what happened yesterday but what happens next. The Colts get a decent Atlanta club next, and what happens in that one will carry far more weight than what happened against the previously unbeaten Broncos.

That was merely reaction. What happens against Atlanta will be a trend. Or not.

Win, and it's the actual turning of that finally-glimpsed corner. Lose, and yesterday will be just an outlier in a lost season.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


Maybe you weren't convinced. Maybe Michigan-Michigan State and the Punt That Never Should Have Been didn't convince you. Maybe you weren't swayed by The Return From Beyond Time And The Rulebook that saved Miami against Duke.

Maybe you remained, through all that, one of those poor deluded souls who continue to buy the NFL's hype, continue to believe that the No Fun League has it all over the "amateur" version they play on the campuses of America's universities.

One word for that: Pffft.

I say that because if Michigan-Michigan State wasn't the best football game I've seen this year, the one they played Saturday down in Oxford, Miss., was. Forget the fact that Oxford, Miss., is one of the great atmospheres in college football, or that the venue (Vaught-Hemingway Stadium) is one of the great venue names in the sport. It was what happened there that mattered.

Arkansas and Ole Miss didn't go seven OTs this time, the way they did in 2001 in another of the great games in college football history. They only went one. But it was a memorable one.

I mean, first you had a game that swayed back and forth all day, like two boxers standing toe-to-toe throwing bombs that made the knees buckle but never made either go down. Then came overtime, and Ole Miss taking the lead yet again. And then, fourth-and-25 for Arkansas, Ole Miss about to close it out ... and this happens.

Crazy. Magnificent. Crazy magnificent.

The best part, of course, is that Arkansas likely had no business even hanging with Ole Miss, let alone pulling off a stone miracle to beat the Rebels. The even better part was it happened again later in the evening, when a Nebraska team that had just lost to Purdue somehow hung with unbeaten Michigan State long enough to pull off its own miracle -- i.e., a winning touchdown pass that shouldn't have counted because the receiver stepped out of bounds on his own and then stepped back in.

This morning Sparty is wailing over that one, and Ole Miss is shaking their heads over the facemask that gave Arkansas yet another last chance on Bret Bielema's daring call to go for the win with the two-point conversion. But you know what?

Put 'em away like you're supposed to, and neither of those plays matter.

Know what else?

Thank God they didn't put 'em away. 'Cause it was great theater -- and the kind of November football, sorry, you just don't get in the NFL.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Dysfunction junction

There's a sunny side to every street, no matter how deep in shadow it lies. And so today we can at least say the Indianapolis Colts are not the Dallas Cowboys, who hired Greg Hardy and now perform standup comedy every time they're compelled to defend this miserable creature, who's apparently gifted at only two things: Sacking quarterbacks and marking up the women in his life.

Those photos Deadspin released of Nicole Holder's battered body do not tell us anything we didn't already know about Hardy, a gutless punk who got away with beating Holder up only because he's a professional athlete with the means to buy himself out of his bad acts. And so he was convicted and then the conviction was overturned because, essentially, he allegedly paid her to go away. And now that the case has been expunged ... well, hey. It's all good, right?

But now come the photos, whose role is to speak a million words to the contrary. And also to ensure that Jerry Jones will always sound more like Jerry Lewis when he tries to tell us that the architect of those photos is a "leader."

 It sounded absurd enough when Jones said it to absolve Hardy of assaulting the Cowboys' special teams coach (And how do you think that coach feels about an owner who so demonstrably doesn't have his back?).  Now it just makes him sound certifiable. Somewhere Tom Landry must ralphing in his fedora at seeing this clown show representing the Star.

How bad is it?

It's so bad it makes the league's other clown show look like Oxford by comparison.

That would be the Colts, who, yes, can thank God today they're not the Cowboys. But that's small beer when you consider how deep their own dysfunction goes.

It got so bad this week that the players kicked the coaches out of the locker room and met among themselves. The topic of discussion: How to insulate themselves from the ongoing vaudeville that is Chuck Pagano vs. Ryan Grigson.

Pagano has probably already coached himself out of his job, but what's reportedly being done to him is like flinging a non-swimmer into the ocean and then throwing him a concrete block for a life preserver. Apparently Grigson (and perhaps owner Jim Irsay) are dictating to Pagano what players to play and for how many minutes, all of it based on Grigson's deeply flawed judgment in putting the team together. In other words, Grigson blows the draft and blows free agency, and then forces Pagano to play his mistakes.

It's a ridiculous strategy that has never worked anywhere at any time in pro football, and yet somehow the brain trust thinks it's going to work here. It hasn't, and it won't. All it's done is leave what was once one of pro football's most well-oiled machines in utter disarray. And there is more disarray coming.

Because, if Pagano goes at the end of the season and Grigson stays, what coach with any sort of pedigree is going to agree to those working conditions? Which means the likely scenario is Pagano goes, Grigson goes, Irsay blows the whole thing up and the Colts start over again.

A dismaying thought for a franchise whose stated goal at the beginning of this season was the Super Bowl or bust.

Well. Welcome to bust, boys and girls.  

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Positively negative

The Dungeon of Doom.

Man, that's a low blow.

That's a downer, because when Lions coach Jim Caldwell said that about the team's media pressroom this week, it sounded so unlike my former colleagues. I was a sportswriter for 38 years -- still am, occasionally -- and I can't imagine a more relentlessly upbeat bunch. Why, if I had a nickel for every time someone responded with a cheerful "Bleep-bleep it to bleep!" every time his or her laptop took a dump or Coach's postgame presser came back sounding like a comm link from Pluto on the old Dollar General tape recorder ... well. I'd be a rich man.

I mean, if we were truly the Negative Nellies that Caldwell claimed we were, wouldn't we have whirled that dumpy laptop out of the pressbox like a discus? Wouldn't we have thrown that cheap piece of crap tape recorder against the wall? And wouldn't we have reacted with more than just low grumbling and pitiful whining when the bleeps kept the bleeping locker room closed forever or that bleeping Knight brought some bleeping freshman who didn't even play to the bleeping postgame? Again?

I mean, bleep. If we were really such a bunch of Gloomy Guses, wouldn't we have been more melodramatic than that?

Of course we would have. Instead, there was hardly a discouraging word. OK, there were, but mostly it was just a lot of loud sighing and  moaning. And that, my friends, is sportswriter code for, "Heavens to Betsy, ain't this a great life?"

Because, see, mostly it is, and deep down we all know it. And so the bitching and moaning isn't really negativity, because our hearts aren't really in it.

That's why I suspect Caldwell is wrong, wrong, wrong about this Dungeon of Doom business. I bet there are plenty of sunshine-y souls covering the Lions these days. Why, I bet even now someone up there is crafting a story pointing out that, you know, things could be worse. The Lions could be nine games into the season instead of just eight, which means they'd be 1-8 instead of just 1-7.

And, yeah, sure, they rank 26th in the NFL in total offense, 27th in total defense and 24th in scoring. But at least they're not last. OK, so they actually are last in rushing -- but, hey, that's just one category. Amiright?

And, yeah, OK. So they went all the way to London last week to get smoked 45-10 by the Chiefs. But, hey, at least they got to see London. You can't call it a total failure when you get to see Big Ben up close.

And no, not that Big Ben, the one who plays quarterback in Pittsburgh. That probably would be a total failure. But you know what?

The Lions don't play Pittsburgh this year.

Go on. Try to put some Doom on that.     

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Poll vaulting

The first College Football Playoff poll is out, and it's the Blob's considered opinion that they got it all wrong.

No, not because unbeaten and second-ranked Baylor came in at No. 6 and got left out. The Bears paid the price for scheduling Lamar, Moe and Curly and playing in a conference (the Big 12) where defense adheres to the Open Door policy (i.e., Open the Door, step aside).

 And, no, not because one-loss Alabama somehow got into the Final Four. It's just habit to put Alabama in there somewhere. One suspects Alabama could lose five games and still make it because, well, how can you have a Final Four without Alabama in it? It'd be like Christmas without those dogs that sing "Jingle Bells."

No, the CFP folks got it wrong simply by putting out a poll this early, because all it does is make a bunch of people mad for no reason. Everyone forgot last year, when that first CFP poll in early November was as useless as a paper hat. Three of the four playoff teams in it weren't around for the actual playoff, so why even put out a poll at this point?

Which leads us directly to the Blob's Big Idea for today.

Here it is: You put out one poll, and one poll only. You do it at the end of the season. Then, when Baylor gets left out despite going unbeaten and finishing No. 1 in the final Associated Press poll, it will be too late for head coach Art Briles to say "OK, OK, we won't play Lamar anymore."  And we'll all be much more appreciative when people start screaming, "Oh, sure, of course Notre Dame made it" and  "(Bleeping) Alabama", and every other time-honored favorite.

From South Carolina:  "I knew you guys would find some way to screw Clemson."

From East Lansing: "I knew you guys would find some way to screw Michigan State."

And, of course, from Ann Arbor: "But ... but we hired Jim Harbaugh and everything!"

All for naught. And that's the best part. Because if there's anything more entertaining than people whining and cussing and calling Nick Saban and Urban Meyer names, it's fruitless whining and cussing and calling Nick Saban and Urban Meyer names.

Heck. I'd even make popcorn for that.

Domino theory

So, this is all Pep Hamilton's fault.

The 3-5 start going on 3-7, that's on him. Andrew Luck playing quarterback the way you'd imagine  Andrew Carnegie playing it, that's Pep's doing, too. The fumbles, the turnovers, the turnstile offensive line, the Dick-Van-Dyke-tripping-over-the-footstool approach to the first three quarters of most games ...

All Pep. All the offensive coordinator.

That was the message coming out of the Colts' complex on the west side of Indianapolis yesterday, as Hamilton got the axe and everyone else, feeling the air stir as it whistled past, breathed a little easier. Someone had to be the fall guy for this mess of a half-season, and the OC was it. And so of course everything will now immediately get better.

Well, OK. So probably not.

You can blame Hamilton for clinging to an offensive scheme profoundly unsuited to the personnel at his disposal, and you'll be on solid ground. When you have an O-line with the structural integrity of al dente spaghetti, going vertical with the passing game is doomed to failure. And so Luck drops back, Luck waits, Luck gets pressured/hit/sacked, Luck winds up with a dinged shoulder on his throwing arm and dinged ribs. Luck, as a result, descends into serious flinch mode.

The result is an offense that got all sorts of new pieces in the offseason -- pieces with some wear on them, but new pieces nonetheless -- and yet can't get out of neutral. The Colts are 16th in the league in yards per game and 20th in points per game. They've gone scoreless in the first half in almost half their games. And Luck, upon whom the franchise has placed so much of the load since nearly the day he arrived, leads the NFL with 13 turnovers.

He has 13 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. And his QBR (37.6) is little more than half what it was in 2014 (61.5).

This is all Pep's fault.

Oh, if only that were so.

The bad news for the Colts is this isn't all Pep's fault, and therefore showing him the road is less a quick fix than no fix at all. There are issues with this team that go beyond the offensive coordinator, that wash up on shore at the feet of head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson. One put a deeply flawed roster together; the other has not had it ready to play when the bell sounded on Sunday afternoon or Monday night.

That means Pep Hamilton only started the dominoes falling, the first victim in what's likely to be an serial bloodletting. Shedding Hamilton might solve part of the problem -- what needs to happen now is to install a short-drop, short-route offense that keeps Luck upright and enables the ball to come out of his hand more quickly -- but it doesn't solve the fact that the Broncos are coming in with the scariest defense in the league in four days.  And that is exactly not what the rickety Colts need to see right now.

Bottom line: Pep Hamilton only bought everyone else a little time. And the clock is now running on Pagano and Grigson.

Tick, tick, tick.


Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A few brief thoughts on NFL Week 8

And now this week's edition of The NFL In So Many Words, the Blob feature denounced by the Flat Earth Society as "phonier than the moon landing" and by anti-vaxxers as "a leading cause of autism, like the flu vaccine, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and those holiday Oreos with the red icing":

1.  Peyton Manning is finis--

2. Oh. Wait.

3. Drew Brees is finis--

4. Oh. Wait.

5.  The Dallas Cowboys would like to announce that, after Greg Hardy assaulting an assistant coach and Dez Bryant going off on reporters, they are installing a new position: Designated Guy Who Loses His Stuff And Behaves Like A 5-Year-Old.

6. Andrew Luck would like to announce his ribs are fine, he just screwed up and, dang it, set his alarm for the fourth quarter instead of the first quarter. "Second week in a row!" he wailed. "God, I'm such an idiot!"

7. Eli Manning would like to announce he's quitting football, on account of he threw five touchdown passes and still lost. "That's it, I'm outta here," he said. "Stupid defense."

8. The Bengals!

9. Won again!

10. No, really!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Punishing the help

J.T. Barrett should be riding whatever they make benches out of these days. When you're QB-1 for the No. 1 team in the country, it is presumed that you know how to keep your head clear of your you-know-what.

Barrett, however, apparently mislaid those instructions last weekend, and so was arrested for drunk driving. Which forced Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, whose players have a history of being way too cozy with the police blotter, to bench Barrett this weekend.

Good for him. Bad, however, that Ohio State has taken it another step and stripped Barrett of his scholarship for a semester.

The old-school crowd will no doubt applaud this, missing the point that this is not so much about punishing a college kid for the crime of being dumb (a naturally occurring event) as it is about providing Meyer some cover. He gets to look like the stern disciplinarian, and everyone forgets that, in this case, a one-game sitdown is pretty much a parking ticket.

There's also this: By cutting off Barrett's money, Ohio State gets to remind the help who holds the cards in their grossly unequal partnership.

Needless to say, it ain't the help.

No, they're pretty much just minimum wage widgets in the landscape of big-boy college athletics, making millions for the universities who own the rights to their names and images and (occasionally) bodies. In exchange, the widgets sometimes, though not always, get their education entirely free. And the university reserves the right to withhold even that if the widgets get out of line.

And so, OSU pulls the plug, which doesn't really cost it much considering what the university gets in return. And it does it without even a promise that Barrett -- who, lest we forget, played a huge role in Ohio State winning a very lucrative national championship last year -- will eventually get it back.

In other words: We own you, son. And no matter how much you think you aren't, you're entirely expendable to us.


Too perfect

So now we know who stands on the grassy knoll this week, in NASCAR's endlessly cycling  conspiracy orthodoxy. Why, look, it's that nice boy from Wisconsin, Matt Kenseth!

It was Kenseth, puttering along 10 laps off the pace Sunday at Martinsville, who unaccountably wrecked the leader, Joey Logano, rather than backing off the way guys running 10 laps off the pace are supposed to. Ostensibly this was in retaliation for Logano wrecking him at Kansas, when both were racing for the win. But in any case, it set up this: Logano gets taken out, and that hands the lead to the elder statesman, Jeff Gordon, and Gordon goes on to win.

It was not only his first victory since September of last year. It was a victory, in this last set of three races, that catapulted Gordon into the Chase's final four -- which means, in the last race of his decorated career, he'll  be racing for his fifth Cup title.

It's a scenario NASCAR could envision only in its sweetest dreams, and so of course it is immediately suspect. Like Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the first race back at Daytona after his father was killed there, it feels entirely neat, entirely too  perfect. The cosmos is not supposed to be such an ordered place, and nowhere is it supposed to be more random than on a racetrack jammed with 43 maniacs striving to see who can bury his or her right foot the deepest. And so there is immediately a suspicion that the hand of man -- and perhaps a specific man, like, say, Matt Kenseth -- must be at work.

"Yeah, sure, Gordon wins right when he needs to to make the final four. Like NASCAR didn't plan that deal," the refrain no doubt went as the faithful sat in post-race traffic.

That's the orthodoxy. The theory the Blob prefers to embrace is not nearly as flashy.

Which is: NASCAR just gets damn lucky sometimes.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Still a treat

So on a Halloween weekend when  the U  brought The Play back from the dead, Daniel Murphy was spooked by the hobglobins of Citi Field and Ohio State was visited by the ghosts of Urban Meyer's past (even though it didn't play), the greatest trick of all happened up in Minnesota late last night.

What happened was, the Golden Gophers failed to win the Little Brown Jug in back-to-back years, something it hasn't done since 1963. And yet still won, somehow.

The Gophers were down 29-26 with the clock nearly out of seconds when, on an already emotional night, interim coach Tracy Claeys made an emotional decision. With the ball resting an inch or so from the goal line and a kicker on the sideline who'd already notched four field goals, Claeys violated football protocol by going for the win at home instead of the tie.

Of course, Michigan stuffed the Gophers as the clock ran out, and escaped into the night with the win.

But you know what?

Not really.

Not really, because if the Gophers lost, the way in which they lost revealed them to be as much as winners as the Wolverines. That was a guts call, going for the win, the kind of call you hardly ever see anymore in high-stakes football. The smart play might have been to kick the field goal and get the thing into overtime, but the football play -- the purest expression of what the game most celebrates -- was the play Claeys sent in.

It was the highlight of an appropriately weird weekend in which the Mets playoff hero, Murphy, booted the ball that opened the door for the Royals to win Game 4 and open a 3-1 lead in the World Series; in which Miami did this;  in which Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett was arrested for drunk driving, the latest in a long list of players who've been arrested on the watch of Urban Meyer, who unaccountably continues to be regarded as a disciplinarian.

Forget all that. Remember the Call instead.

That it came against the backdrop of beloved coach Jerry Kill's resignation this week because of his continued issues with epilepsy made it all the more perfect. Curious logic, perhaps, but this was never going to be a night when logic carried the field.  It was Halloween, and it was Michigan, and it was Jerry Kill Night, highlighted by Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner grabbing a flag with "Jerrysota" written on it and waving it for the home crowd before kickoff.

And then highlighted again when the Gophers went for the W instead of playing the percentages.

Failure was never more noble. Nor more of a success.