Monday, January 19, 2015

Now all my football demons have been cast out...

I've been watching professional football since 1976, when I was eight years old and my maternal grandfather, along with my dad, introduced me to Fran Tarkenton and the Minnesota Vikings. I've been a die-hard Vikings fan ever since, which means that I've suffered a lot of heartbreak. My grandpa was from St. Louis, so I've also followed the football Cardinals until their departure after a dismal 1985 campaign, then welcomed the St. Louis Rams in 1995. The Rams gave us the Greatest Show on Turf, four years of glory, a lonely island in a sea of feckless ineptitude.

My football fandom has not been a total loss. I saw the Rams win what many people think was the most exciting of all the Super Bowls in 2000 over the Tennessee Titans, and I celebrated in 2006 when Peyton Manning and the Colts beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship (what my blog entry calls "The Greatest NFL Game Ever Played"), followed his sole Super Bowl win over the Bears. So it's not like I've never had the chance to break out my copy of Queen's "Greatest Hits" and blast "We Are The Champions" throughout my house.

But for the most part, NFL fandom is an exercise in annual heartbreak. Even the great champion cities of Pittsburgh, Dallas, and San Francisco have lost more season than they've won. For me, it's reached the point where I'm happy if one of my favorite teams makes it to the playoffs (which has been forever for Minnesota and St. Louis).

With that said, the following are my five most heartbreaking NFL losing experiences, all of which were expelled with the same force as Legion being cast into a herd of swine after yesterday's NFC Championship game. We'll get to that in a bit; first, my pain, then my redemption.

Still my favorite QB of all time.
#5. Vikings vs. Raiders, Super Bowl 11, 1977
This was the year I was introduced to the Vikings, who went 10-0 before finishing 11-2-1 and beating Washington and the L.A. Rams to get to their fourth Super Bowl. Then they met the best Oakland Raiders team that John Madden ever coached and lost 32-14. I remember walking out of the house and trudging miserably through the snow before the game was over when I realized the Vikings had no chance to win. I should have just given up then.

#4. Cardinals vs. Washington, 1984
This was the last St. Louis football Cardinals game I ever watched. After taking a 27-26 fourth quarter lead, the Cardinals gave up a field goal to trail 29-27. QB Neil Lomax took the team down in the waning moments to give kicker Neil O'Donahue a chance at a 38-yard game-winning field goal that would have put the Cardinals into the playoffs. Wide right. Four years later, the team moved to Phoenix. I didn't care.

#3. Vikings vs. Saints, NFC Championship, 2010
This was the year Brett Favre came out of retirement (again) and had a simply magical season with the Vikings. Had the referees decided to actually call one or two of the at least 17 roughing the passer personal foul penalties that should have been called on the New Orleans defense, the Vikings probably win this game by two touchdowns. They would have played Peyton's Colts in the Super Bowl, giving me the rare opportunity to root for both teams and be happy regardless of who won. Instead, I hope New Orleans never makes the playoffs again. Ever.

Kurt Warner, HOF (soon!)
#2. Rams vs. Patriots, Super Bowl 36, 2002
The Patriots illegally videotaped the Rams' practice walk-throughs, giving their defense the necessary advantage to derail an offense that was utterly unstoppable that year. Years later,  when the cheating came to light and after the NFL's "investigation," all the recorded evidence of the cheating was destroyed. Yeah, yeah, move along, nothing to see here. I can only take solace in the fact that some day Tom Brady will be too old to play football, and even further into the future, when Bill Belicheck passes away, the devil will finally cash in on Belicheat's end of their bargain.

What Moss meant to the Vikings
#1. Vikings vs. Falcons, NFC Championship, 1998
This is the Rosetta Stone of misery for all Vikings fans. All it would have taken to seal the game in the fourth quarter was a 38-yard field goal by Gary Anderson, who hadn't missed all season. He missed, of course, and Atlanta tied the game with less than two minutes remaining, then won it in overtime. Until yesterday, all you had to say to a Vikings fan was "1998" to either: a) reduce him to tears; or b) enrage him to the point of homicidal psychosis. But thanks to our longtime rivals, the Green Bay Packers, Vikings fans can at last take solace in the fact that we no longer own the worst choke-job in the history of conference championship games.

Here's why my list no longer matters: Up 19-7 with five minutes to go in Seattle, a venue where most visiting teams have no chance to win, Green Bay, led by the NFL's best QB, Aaron Rodgers, goes three-and-out with three weak runs. On the next series, Russell Wilson throws his fourth interception of the day. Green Bay takes over near midfield with less than four minutes to play. Run, run, run, punt. Rodgers never throws the ball.

Next, a Packers defense that had successfully contained Seattle's offense all day allows them to score a touchdown in less than a minute, then loses the on-side kick when it goes through the hands of a backup tight end, then gives up another touchdown by being unable to tackle either Marshawn Lynch or Russell Wilson on long runs, then gives up a two-point conversion that Wilson just threw up for grabs as he was going down, then ties it up with a field goal to send it to overtime (even though it would have won them the game except for the miracle two-point conversion), then loses the overtime coin toss, then gives up a Hail-Mary touchdown pass on the first Seattle possession in overtime.

Go ahead. Let it out.
Count it up. 1) Three and out. 2) Intercepted Wilson AGAIN! 3) Three and out. 4) Gives up TD. 5) Loses onside kick. 6) Gives up go-ahead touchdown. 7) Gives up impossible two-point conversion. 8) Can't score winning TD, settles for overtime. 9) Loses OT coin toss. 10) Gives up game-winning TD on Hail-Mary pass on Seattle's first possession. Ten disastrous events, all coming after they held a 12-point lead with five minutes to play.

Thank you, Green Bay. You've just relieved me of 30 years of football futility. I'd like to tell you that you'll get over it someday, but that day is likely to be a long time coming.

Friday, January 17, 2014

AFC Championship Preview

Well, for most of the country who doesn't have a vested rooting interest in an AFC team, this is the game they all wanted. Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, round four: New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos. The last time these two quarterbacks met in an AFC Championship Game, it resulted in what I wrote about in 2007 as "The Best Football Game of All Time." We should probably expect the same this time around.

When these two teams met earlier this year in New England, Denver jumped out to a big lead at halftime and then squandered it in the second half. Like I wrote in 2007, New England is Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger all rolled up into one unstoppable killing machine. And as much as it pains me to write this, I think that's what we can expect to see unfold in Denver this Sunday afternoon. Let me break it down quarter by quarter...

First Quarter: Both teams punt on their first possession, but New England gets the first score toward the end of the quarter after a long drive. NE 7, DEN 0.

Second Quarter: Peyton gets rolling and puts up two touchdowns. Brady follows with a quick drive, throwing the ball down field at will through the porous Denver secondary. Peyton drives the Broncos down field in a two-minute drill that results in a half-ending field goal. DEN 17, NE 14.

Third Quarter: Denver gets the ball first and kicks another field goal. Both defenses tighten up, and each team only manages one TD in this quarter. DEN 27, NE 21.

Fourth Quarter: Brady starts to light it up, once again taking advantage of the fact that Denver's defensive backs are about as effective against the pass as the Titanic was against icebergs. New England scores two touchdowns, while all Denver can muster throughout most of the fourth quarter is another field goal. With less than four minutes to play in the game, New England kicks off to Denver with the score NE 35, DEN 30.

Now is the time where Peyton does what he's done so many times before. With pinpoint accuracy and the calm that comes from the fact that he is a cold-blooded assassin, Manning drives the Broncos across the goal line for the go-ahead touchdown, putting Denver up 37-35. There's only one problem: there are 55 second left to play in the game, and New England still has two time outs.

Brady takes the ball on his own 20 yard line. The Denver pass rush doesn't get within a mile—high, low, or any direction—of Brady at any point. Denver's pass defense brings to mind other notable defensive stalwarts like the French infantry in WW2 or Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, and four plays later, with four seconds remaining, Stephen Gostkowski kicks a 38-yard field goal to give the Patriots the AFC Championship with a final score of 38-37.

At this point, I once again vow never to watch another NFL game for as long as I live. My wife will roll her eyes in long-suffering derision.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Why do they call it "golf"?

Way back in the early nineties, I was playing golf with my friend and roommate Bill Williams at a public course in Columbia. I love to play golf, but I stink. I've never shot better than 50 for nine holes, and that's with a liberal amount of mulligans. Anyway, we were joined early on by a couple of older guys—in their fifties or sixties, I guessed—around the second or third hole, and I found myself just butchering the fifth or sixth, taking my usual 8 or 9 on a par four. This prompted one of the older players to ask me, "Do you know why they call it 'golf'?" I shook my head.

"Because 'Oh, #&@$!' was already taken."

It's my favorite weekend of golf, the U.S. Open, and I'm pretty sure NBC's on-course microphones are on a seven-second delay so as not to inadvertently broadcast "#&@$," "$#^%," and the ever-popular "%@#$&#@$%#!" sure to be uttered by so many of these talented golfers this weekend.

What makes the U.S. Open great is a sadistic cruelty inflicted by the United States Golf Association on its annual entrants. It's great because it makes these ridiculously good professionals (and a few great amateurs) look like...well, like me.

Well, maybe not just like me, but you see the kind of shots that weekend duffers all over the country deal with consistently. Because of the difficulty of the course—especially the course at Merion near Philadelphia this week—you see beautiful tee shots take a bad bounce into deep rough, followed by rough shots that only go 100 yards. Back on the fairway, they'll put a wedge less than ten feet away from the hole, only the watch the putt slide right by the hole.

Merion has played like the Marquis de Sade of golf courses so far this week. I'm in the midst of watching third round coverage on a Saturday afternoon, and the tournament lead is at -1. Phil Mickelson, a five-time runner up in this tournament, is two strokes back, evidently getting a head start on choking away this title. Tiger is at +6; NBC keeps him on mute and won't show a close-up when he talks for fear of offending astute lip-readers.

These greens are just insane—almost impossible to read and evidently equipped with ball-repelling force fields, a new innovation from the dungeon masters at the USGA. I'm waiting for someone to freak out and start breaking clubs over his knees and tossing them into a pond (my money's on Tiger—he's just having a miserable round).

There used to be a PGA Tour ad with the tagline, "These guys are good." The U.S. Open should use this for their promos:

Friday, June 14, 2013

Adam Wainwright: Baseball's Best Pitcher

The discussion this year really should be about whether Cardinals ace starter Adam Wainwright will win his second (or perhaps his third) Cy Young award. He should have finished second to Chris Carpenter (or won the thing outright) in 2009 when the award inexplicably went to Tim Lincecum. He finished second to Roy Halladay in 2010 despite having a lower ERA.

I'm less bitter about Halladay than Lincecum, which was just a travesty. It will also be a travesty this year if Waino continues to pitch in the form we've seen so far this season and loses the Cy Young again to someone less deserving but closer to the myopic media centers on the East and West coasts. 

For example? Clayton Kershaw (LA)—great ERA, but only a 5-4 record. Jordan Zimmerman (WAS)—9-3, but team is barely above .500. Sure, if you look at a variety of different statistics, you can make a case for a variety of pitchers who deserve accolades at this stage of the season. But baseball is more than just statistics—it's also about chemistry and leadership.

Wainwright is on his second full season following Tommy John surgery, and he's more dominant than ever. He has full command of all his pitches, especially his vicious and destructive curveball. He has also emerged as the undisputed leader of the Cardinals young, talented pitching staff. All of the Cardinals highly touted rookie arms look to Wainwright for guidance and wisdom.

Wainwright inherited the leadership role from Chris Carpenter when Carp went down with nerve damage, and even if he makes it back to the staff this season, the pitching staff still belongs to Waino. He's also the team's undisputed stopper, the one you want on the mound after a tough loss.

He's always likely to strike out 8-12 hitters, pitch at least 7-8 strong innings, walk no one, and give up two runs or less. He's the first pitcher in the NL to reach 10 wins this season, and he's in the top four in ERA and strikeouts. A sure-fire All-Star selection, he's likely to get the start in New York this summer.

But if that doesn't convince you, just watch this:

He's got MOVES!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Tebow Dilemma

One thing I've never understood about the whole Tim Tebow phenomenon—both the good and the bad—is how so many people use one's opinion about Tebow's abilities to play quarterback at the NFL level as a litmus test of religious faith. Simply put, Tebow is, by all accounts, a young man of strong faith who professes a public commitment to living a Christ-centered life. Wonderful. He's also a lousy NFL quarterback. Not as wonderful.

In this age of social media and instant offense at the slightest of remarks, pointing out that Tebow's skill at QB in the NFL is atrocious has become akin to pounding another nail through Jesus's wrist. What? Since when did religious faith of any kind have anything at all to do with a person's athletic skill? The history of the NFL is full of outstanding QBs who range from strong men of faith (Kurt Warner) to others who wouldn't get within a zip code of any of my daughters (Ben Roethlisberger). One has nothing to do with the other.

Except with Tim Tebow. To criticize his ability is taken by his most vehement supporters as a slight to the faith. I'm sorry to inform those people of this simple fact, but here it is: Jesus himself, if he were an NFL head coach, wouldn't start Tebow at QB. Get over it.

That leads us to Bill Belichick, who will never be confused at any time for Jesus Christ. He has, for some unseen reason, decided to sign Tebow as a third-string QB for the New England Patriots. The connection is, of course, NE offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Tebow's head coach in Denver. Is this charity? Did McDaniels convince Belichick that Tebow still has real potential? Only time will tell, but from my seat here in the midwest, I can think of a few scenarios.

1) Tebow will be a third-string quarterback. This is the most likely. I find it hard to see Tebow outplaying Ryan Mallet—an unbelievably skilled QB at Arkansas—for the second-string job. And Tebow has as much chance of beating out Tom Brady for the job as he does convincing Brady's wife Giselle Bundchen of running away to Florida with him. So he rides the pine and holds a clipboard. Glamorous job, huh? 

2) Tebow will be a gimmick player. He'll be used sparingly on gadget and gimmick plays like direct snaps from the RB position, or some variation of the wildcat offense. This seems even less likely from either Belichick's or Brady's standpoint. Bringing Tebow in every once in a while does nothing to make your offense more potent. The Jets proved that when Tebow only comes in once or twice a game, it's easy  to stop him.

3) Belichick and McDaniels finally convince Tebow to play a different position. This is the idea that makes the most sense. He can run the ball better than most fullbacks. I assume he could catch from either the RB or the TE position. And, every once in a while, he could throw the ball downfield (his long arm is much better than his short game—watch his Denver games and see). In fact, Tebow could be a whole new type of position player: the Hybrid. You really don't know what he's going to do—run? Pass? Catch? All of the above on one play? He would be a bigger star in this role than he would ever be as a below-average QB.

There's nothing wrong, absolutely no shame, in being the best that you can be at what you do well. The best that Tebow can be as a QB is to sit on the bench as a third-stringer. The best that he could be as a hybrid RB/FB/TE/QB is create an entirely new position; he could be a real pioneer in the evolution of the offensive game in the same way we see with players like RGIII and Colin Kaepernick. 

I don't know who keeps telling Tim Tebow that it's his destiny to be a starting NFL QB. I don't think it's Jesus, and I don't think it's going to be Bill Belichick, either. Maybe one of them can convince him that a successful career leads down a much different path. 

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Playoff picks destined to be laughably wrong

NFC Playoffs
1. San Francisco
2. Atlanta
3. Chicago
4. Dallas
5. Green Bay
6. Carolina

Wild Card Games
Chicago over Carolina
Green Bay over Dallas

Divisional Games
Atlanta over Chicago
San Francisco over Green Bay

NFC Championship
San Francisco over Atlanta

AFC Playoffs
1. Baltimore
2. Houston
3. New England
4. Denver
5. Cincinnati
6. Buffalo

Wild Card Games
New England over Buffalo
Denver over Cincinnati

Divisional Games
Baltimore over Denver
Houston over New England

AFC Championship
Baltimore over Houston

Baltimore over San Francisco in the battle of the Harbaugh brothers

Friday, September 07, 2012

2012 NFL Preview: The American Football Conference

One of the reasons I'm really excited about this season is that it's the first real indication of team strength that we've seen in the NFL in three seasons. Last season was damaged due to the lockout, and the year before that, teams didn't make many moves due to uncertainty about the future collective bargaining agreement. So this year, we see which teams got better, which teams got old, and which teams are building for the future. This dynamic couldn't be any clearer than it is in the AFC.

I said, "I'm a giant douche bag!"
AFC East
1) New England Patriots (12-4)
2) Buffalo Bills (10-6)
3) New York Jets (7-9)
4) Miami Dolphins (2-14)

As long as Brady and Belichick are together, this is a playoff team, but everyone gets older. The Bills take another step forward, building on their potential from last year's surprising start. The Tebow circus in New York will more than likely usher loudmouth HC Rex Ryan out the door. Miami, like Tampa, features a professional [sic] football organization.

Are you sure? I thought the
Village People had a football player.

1) Baltimore Ravens (13-3)
2) Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
3) Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7)
4) Cleveland Browns (5-11)

The Ravens need to take advantage of what is almost certainly the last hurrah of their Hall of Fame-bound veteran defenders. It's also time for Joe Flacco to take the same leap forward that Eli Manning did last year from game manager to clutch time leader. Also, his receivers need to HOLD ON TO THE DAMN BALL! Marvin Lewis will continue to overachieve with a Bengals team that will be better still than last year. My friends who are Steelers fans will hate me for saying this, but they are just getting too old, and Ben's health is a huge concern this season. Cleveland is, well, Cleveland, and that ain't good.

Nah, it doesn't make any more sense
when you turn it upside down.
1) Houston Texans (13-3)
2) Tennessee Titans (8-8)
3) Indianapolis Colts (4-12)
4) Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14)

If Matt Schaub can stay healthy, the Texans are my top pick to represent the AFC in the Superbowl this year. The Titans are still developing under Jake Locker; Andrew Luck will put up some great numbers, but the Colts are obviously still operating under the rebuilding paradigm. Jaguars players can look forward to shopping for real estate in southern California in a year or two. Blaine Gabbert would have done much better in Minnesota.

OW! MY NECK!! Sorry guys,
I was just messing with you!
1) Denver (10-6)
2) San Diego (9-7)
3) Oakland (8-8)
4) Kansas City (6-10)

Come on, would I ever pick against Peyton Manning? If they went 8-8 with Tebow, they should, at the very least, win the division. San Diego will keep spinning its wheels until they hire a new head coach. Oakland will continue to baffle us with potential that's never fulfilled (kind of like Carson Palmer's career), and sorry KC fans...I'm just not feeling any love for Romeo.

Tomorrow: Playoff picks destined to be laughably wrong.