Saturday, January 21, 2006

Okay, already, here's my conference champ picks...

Denver: Got lucky last week with favorable officiating and uncharacteristic Patriot mistakes and turnovers. Jake Plummer couldn't move their offense unless he was starting on the N.E. 30-yard line, and their defense didn't stop Tom Brady from moving the ball at will on them. If it wasn't for the turnovers, the Steelers would be in Foxboro this week instead of Mile High.

Pittsburgh: Beat Manning last week like they owned him, so who thinks they won't do more of the same against Plummer? Looks like Cowher's figured out what made Belichick so successful: NFL teams need to peak in January, not November.

Pick: Steelers 31, Broncos 27

Seattle: Won small against overmatched Washington team. League MVP coughs up ball on first series, then gets knocked out. I still don't believe in Matt Hasselback, and I'm really not all that impressed with what Seattle brings to the table.

Carolina: See comments above about peaking in January. Is anyone really playing any better than these guys? Note to other NFL coaches: the talent is all pretty much equal from team to team; it's all about game planning your own strengths and weaknesses against your opponents' strengths and weaknesses. The Colts lost last week because Dungy didn't game plan his team's weakness—their vulnerability to a 3-4 pressure defense—to Pittsburgh's strength, namely, the aforementioned 3-4 pressure defense. John Fox has game planned masterfully against both Tom Coughlin and Lovie Smith, and I think he's gonna clean Mike Holmgren's clock tomorrow night.

Pick: Carolina 38, Seattle 17

Monday, January 16, 2006

Playoff Reflections for Future Implications (part one)

Washington Redskins
Great defense means that they are in a good position to make another playoff run next year, and Dan Snyder made one of the best moves of his ownership tenure (yeah, that's not saying much) by locking up DC Gregg Williams for three years (and probably to succeed Joe Gibbs). But they're not winning anything until they ratchet up their offensive firepower. Their challenge during the draft and free agency is to augment their running game, give their passing game more weapons and possibly upgrading their QB spot. Mark Brunell has played well this year, but he's almost as old as I am, and my 30s are rapidly evaporating. With an offensive upgrade, I would put Washington at the top of the NFC East next season.

New England Patriots
Well, why should I offer them any advice at all? Everyone knows they'll be back in the thick of things, and to be perfectly honest, if they didn't turn the ball over five times—almost unthinkable from this team, especially in the playoffs—then they're hosting the AFC title game in Foxboro instead of watching it on CBS with the rest of us. I don't really know how to explain it other than no other team has ever won three Superbowls in a row, so there you go.

Indianapolis Colts
I've got to switch to bullet points for this just to keep it all straight...

• Tony Dungy, please say hello to Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox, Marty Schottenheimer, Daryl Sutter, Dusty Baker, Don Nelson and Art Howe. Welcome to the "Great regular season coaches with minimal postseason success who consistently tighten up and choke in the big game when it really counts." Here's your jacket, there's the buffet, we'll be happy to validate your parking.

• Peyton Manning: When you said your role model was Dan Marino, did you really mean Hall of Fame regular season statistics combined with an entire career of playoff futility and zero championships? Because that's who you are. I like you and I want you to win, but you are so not money, baby. You're not clutch. You are a choker. That's who you are. Don't be too discouraged—so was John Elway until they found him Terrell Davis. But you will never win a championship when it's upon your shoulders, because that is not who you are. When the pressure is at its highest, you are always at your worst. Sorry, but that's who you are.

• All teams must take note of this: You cannot stop playing for any amount of time in the NFL. You can't bench your starters and "rest" them. This causes rust, not rest. The Colts were unstoppable until they thought the games "didn't count." They would have crushed San Diego if that game had meant clinching home field, but since it didn't, they let up and let their season slip away. It was over way back then. In the NFL, you have to play every single game as if the entire season depends on it. Look at Pittsburgh and Carolina. Every one of their games for the past two months have been real must-wins, and they are tough, salty, mean, hungry and battle tested. They are also going to play each other in the Superbowl. Teams that have rested for a month, like Indy and Chicago, are also sitting next to me on the couch in the basement. End of lesson.

• To the Indy OC: You might want to figure out a way to stop the 3-4 pressure blitz defense, since every team you face next season is going to try to beat you this way. They will try it because it has worked for New England, San Diego and Pittsburgh. Until you can beat this defense effectively, you will continue to lose in the playoffs.

• A final word to Tony Dungy: God bless you, sir; I don't think I could have even gotten myself out of bed if I had gone through the personal tragedy that you have. No one should be too hard on Tony with this loss, but I sure wish his players had played better for him.

Chicago Bears
For God's sake, man, get an offensive coordinator with a little more imagination. Rex Grossman could actually be a decent QB with a little coaching (hello, Mike Martz?) and a game plan more creative than a) run up middle; b) run up middle; c) incomplete short pass; d) punt. Your defensive secondary also got exposed yesterday. You have to play better coverage than that when you can't get pressure on the QB. It might not kill you to blitz a little more, too, especially when your front line is getting handled. Don't take it too hard, though. It was a great, unexpected season that you can learn and grow from, and Carolina's going to win the NFC title this year, and you weren't going to be able to stop that; neither is Seattle.

Next time: Comments for divisional winners

Saturday, January 14, 2006

At Last, the Long National Nightmare is Over

Denver 27, New England 13.

Ding, dong, the witch is dead!

Van Helsing has driven a wooden stake through the heart of Count Dracula.

The werewolf has been shot with a silver bullet.

Freddy Krueger has been cast out of our dreams; Jason Vorhees no longer stalks the summer camp; Michael Myers isn’t coming home again.

Sarah Connor has terminated the Terminator.

Tom Brady is mortal; Bill Belichick is human; the New England Patriots are out of the playoffs.

Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Sand Capsules

Youth Movement in Minnesota
Newly hired head coach Brad Childress didn't waste any time cleaning house on the Vikings coaching staff. His first order of business was sacking what was left of Mike Tice's staff. Second was hiring some young coordinators with limited experience but lots of apparent potential. First was Mike Tomlin, the secondary coach for Tampa, who will take over the defense by installing Tony Dungy's Cover-2 scheme. There's no denying the success of the system. The challenge will be in finding players with the right mix of speed and aggressiveness to make the system work. Tomlin will turn 34 later this year, making him the youngest coordinator in the NFL. Taking the role of offensive coordinator is former Packers QB coach Darrell Bevell, who is 36. Bevell was the Wisconsin Rose Bowl QB in 1994 when Childress was on staff with the Badgers, and he's been given the task of revitalizing the Vikings' formerly explosive offense. I like the atmosphere of youth and energy that Childress is creating at Winter Park. It's been clear since his first day on the job that no knuckleheads need apply any more at this organization. So far, so good, but now you have to go out and win games. Keep up the good work!

Low Prices Everyday (except in St. Louis)
Wal-Mart billionaire by virtue of marriage, Bill "Dude, my wife is a Wal-Mart heiress!" Laurie continues to fail miserably at hockey ownership, salesmanship and instilling ethical values in his children (yeah, it's a cheap shot, but I'm talking about hockey, right?). Once again, a prospective deal to sell the bloated and festering corpse of the Franchise Formerly Known as the St. Louis Blues has fallen through. In the meantime, the shell of a once-proud hockey team continues to get shelled by every team in the league. I expect for top-echelon teams to start bringing up minor-leaguers en masse to play St. Louis just to give the kids a taste of winning in the NHL, because the B-Lose couldn't beat a team from the Saskatchewan Bare-Knuckle Bar League right now. In the meantime, Bill "Did I mention my wife is just obscenely wealthy?" Laurie acts like the world's worst used car salesman. He's got what used to be a really nice car, workmanlike in some ways, but with some nice luxury features—GPS, CD/DVD, big V-8 engine. The only problem is that he's stripped off all the nice options and replaced them with leftovers from a 1979 Chevy Nova. The engine's cracked, the tires are bald and the body's covered with rust. And Bill "No, she's the Walton heiress" Laurie continues to ask for the original sticker price as if this junked out wreck just rolled off the assembly line, then complains when the buyer balks at the sticker price. I'll bet you anything that Sam Walton's last words were, "Don't let that dumbass who married my niece Nancy anywhere near the company." Too bad he ever got hold of the Blues.

Sutter finally gets his due
Two pieces of good baseball news: First, the Baseball Retards, I mean Writers of America finally elected dominating reliever Bruce Sutter to the Hall of Fame, and second, Sutter announced yesterday that he would go into the hall as a St. Louis Cardinal. Yeah, I know he won the Cy Young in Chicago, but he threw the final winning pitch from the mound at Busch Stadium to Darrell Porter in 1982, striking out Gorman Thomas to win the World Series. Whenever I think about Sutter, I think about Porter grabbing that third strike out of the air and racing to the mound to embrace Sutter. Bruce was the original modern closer, the guy who, when he came into the game, you'd just turn off the radio or the TV because the game was over. He was the final missing piece to Whitey Herzog's championship puzzle, and his entry to the Hall of Fame was long overdue. Sandlot contributor Tuck (go see his hockey blog, wouldya?) should have the good fortune to witness his entry in person later this year. (You lucky duck!)

The latest from the NBA...
Nah, I'm just messing with you. I couldn't care less about the NBA.

Bode Miller
So, people are upset and confused because a skier admitted that he has skied "wasted" before? Didn't any of these people see "Hot Dog: The Movie" back in the 1980s? I just assumed these people were always wasted.

Tomorrow: Your long-awaited NFL Divisional Playoff column

Monday, January 09, 2006

Wild-Card Weekend Winners and Losers

Now that the NFL's Wild Card round is over, the divisional matchups for next weekend look quite interesting. I'll be breaking down the games individually throughout the week, but for today, I want to take a quick look at why the teams won and lost this past weekends' games.

Washington 17, Tampa Bay 10
Why Washington Won: Defense. It's not hard to understand why Washington gave defensive coordinator Gregg Williams a three-year contract extension to keep him out of this offseason's game of "Who Wants to be an NFL Head Coach?" The Redskins' D shut down Tampa's running game and forced inexperienced QB Chris Simms into making key mistakes.
Why Tampa Lost: Turnovers. When young QBs try to force the game, they often throw crushing interceptions, and Simms was no exception. I don't blame him for losing the whole game, because asking him to win it at this point was a little much, and he gave it his all, but experience counts for a lot in the playoffs.

New England 28, Jacksonville 3
Why New England won: Perfection. This team does not make mental or physical mistakes in the playoffs. You have to play a perfect game to beat them. The Patriots don't do anything that fancy on either side of the ball, but they do all the basic things extremely well, and they know what it takes to win. They are going to be very difficult to beat this year once again.
Why Jacksonville lost: Overrated. There's a reason why this team was a wild card, and why they lost twice to Indianapolis; they've got a talented defense and a promising young QB, but they are too inconsistent to be considered contenders yet at this level.

Carolina 23, New York Giants 0
Why Carolina Won: Defense. Just a crushing, dominating defensive scheme. The Giants couldn't run the ball at all Sunday, which put the game into Eli Manning's trembling hands. Game over.
Why New York Lost: Eli Manning. Four interceptions and one fumble. That says it all. You can't turn the ball over in the playoffs and expect to win the game. Eli looked like the rookie (in essence) that he is.

Pittsburgh 31, Cincinnati 17
Why Pittsburgh Won: Experience. Bill Cowher's been coaching the same team for 14 years for a good reason. When they were down 10-0 early and 17-7 before the half, no one in black and gold panicked. They continued to mix the power running game with timely, well-placed passes from Ben R., and their defense covered the Bengals' receivers so well that Jon Kitna was forced to run around like Fran Tarkenton in his career-ending game against Cleveland (the one where they finally broke his leg). Indy better find their mojo, and quick, 'cause the Steelers are coming to play.
Why Cincinnati Lost: Carson Palmer's knee. The Bengals had so much momentum going early, losing Palmer took a lot of the life out of the team. I'm not saying they would have won if he hadn't been injured, but it gave Pittsburgh both a physical and psychological advantage. Their own playoff inexperience also hurt; once the Steelers overtook them for the lead, they didn't know how to respond because they hadn't been here before. Experience counts for a lot in the NFL playoffs. We'll see that experience even more clearly this weekend.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Hey Brad, You Look Good in Purple

Now those of you who know me know that I’m always going to drink the purple Kool-Aid; it’s just part of being a Vikings fan. So you gotta know that I like their newest hire for head coach, former Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress.

I think Zygi Wilf hired him for one main reason, and that’s character. Zygi was determined to clean up the Vikings’ “dirty” image throughout the country, and it’s clear that Childress was the best candidate to do that, and I get the sense that he will. One thing that’s been lacking in Minnesota for years has been discipline, and I get the sense from Childress that he will not tolerate the extracurricular sex, drugs and Whizzinators that have landed the Vikings on the police reports and punchlines for ESPN personalities.

He’s also a meticulous, detail-oriented obsessive type, perfect for a head coach in the NFL. He’s also been part of a winning organization. The Eagles have been, up to this year, the premier NFC franchise, and Childress is a big reason for their success. He’s coached Donovan McNabb to big-time success, and he should have similar success with Daunte Culpepper. I don’t believe for a second that Childress or Wilf have any intention of trading Daunte, shredded knee or not.

So how will Childress do? Who knows? I want to see who the Vikes name their GM, then they’ve got to pull off the draft without looking like idiots for the fourth straight year. Hiring Childress early gives him time to build a quality supporting staff of assistant coaches. My main point is that I trust Zygi Wilf when he says he wants to build a first-class organization in terms of both championships and personal character, so if Childress is his guy, then pass me another glass of Kool-Aid, please.

Saturday’s Wild Card games
Washington at Tampa Bay
I like Washington in this. Brunell’s got playoff experience, Gibbs is a proven playoff winner, and Clinton Portis has been unstoppable running through defenses. The Washington defense should also play hard as a way of showing their appreciation for their D-coord Gregg Williams signing a three-year contract extension that keeps him out of St. Louis or another head coach suitor. I don’t like Chris Simms in a pressure situation, even if he is playing at home. I’m picking Washington by about six points.

Jacksonville at New England
I want the Jaguars to win this one more than anything, but we’re talking about #$%@&*! New England at home in the playoffs, so now we have to endure another week of hearing about Brady, Belicheck, Bruschi, Vinatieri, et. al., ad infinitum. I hope Denver beats them by three touchdowns next week.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

I See Dead Coaches

Well, my Christmas wish came late this year, but Mike Tice and Mike Martz were finally fired from the Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Rams, respectively. In different situations, each of them could have found success, I think, but the nature of their positions sealed their individual fates, regardless of the circumstances of this season.

Tice was saddled with players brought in under Red "Dumb Texas Redneck" McCombs' regime of cheapness. Red ran the Vikings the same way you would a used car dealership (what a coincidence, right?) by purchasing cheap junk and dressing it up like something the public might consider buying, all the while lining his pockets with cash. That's why the team is so full of low-quality individuals, Brad Johnson notwithstanding. In a way, Tice was a bargain-basement coach, too, almost an afterthought after Denny Green was shown the exit. Tice did the best he could with the talent pool he had—no defense for the previous two years—and actually redeemed himself by helping the Vikings at least look respectable toward the end of the season.

The NFL, however, is the antithesis of the Bush Administration: those who oversee incompetence and malfeasance are held responsible and kicked to the sidewalk when all is said and done, because sports today is like politics used to be—the buck stops at the top. I don't blame Zygi Wilf for what he did, even if the ESPN talking heads are clucking their tongues about the rapid timing.

I expect that Tice will catch on somewhere as an assistant coach; possibly an offensive coordinator, but I think he would serve himself and another team better doing what he knows best, and that's coaching the offensive line. Most of the O-lines in the NFC were cover-your-eyes gawd-awful this season (especially in St. Louis, where the starting QB's number is a bullseye instead of a numeral), so he could make a real difference in improving a team's offensive fortunes. Houston needs an improved line to block for Reggie Bush, too.

Martz is another story completely. I was calling for his head last year after another season of underachieving, poor defense and Hall of Shame caliber special teams play. But this season, there was at least the potential for a turnaround. But once again, he refused to run a balanced offensive attack, then Bulger got hurt (again), then Martz went on the shelf with a heart ailment. During his illness, we all found out that the Rams front office looked more like an off-Broadway revival of Julius Caesar. All the backroom infighting is going to make this job less attractive to a strong personality. I'd like to see Rams president John Shaw fire VP Jay Zygmunt and GM Charley Armey as well and start fresh with a whole new crew, but I doubt that's going to happen.

Where will Martz land? I've heard Oakland mentioned, and Martz is certainly an NFL outlaw, but he's also remarkably undisciplined as a head coach, and Oakland is a mess in dire need of strong direction. Martz would be more ideally suited to once again follow in the footsteps of Dick Vermeil and take over in Kansas City. He knows the system, the personnel, and much of the coaching staff. It makes perfect sense, which is why it won't happen. He's also been rumored to be a candidate in Minnesota, and to say I would have mixed feelings about that is a gross understatement. I think Martz will get another head coaching job (and like Tice, Houston might be a good fit for him—young QB, talented receivers, best running back draft prospect in the past 20 years about to come on board), but if I was Martz's agent, I would call Lovie Smith and ask him if Chicago would like to hire him as offensive coordinator. I don't think that's going to happen, but that's just my opinion, and it's free of charge.

Who are the teams going to go with? I've heard Jim Fassel or possibly the Giants current defensive coordinator in Minnesota, which makes sense because Zygi's a Jersey guy with strong ties to the Giants. I think a defensive minded coach is the right way to go, for obvious reasons, but he also needs to be a coach with strong moral character to help improve the Vikings' PR image. For the Rams, there's only one guy I want—and it's no surprise to Sandlot readers—and that's Jeff Fisher from the Titans. I guess there has been some speculation as to whether the Titans are going to keep him after a poor 4-12 season, but even if they do, maybe he'd be willing to listen to an offer from the Rams. After that, I think Lovie Smith's defensive coordinator Ron Rivera might be the best man for the job. Whoever gets the job in either city has a lot of work ahead of him, but there's also a lot of potential there. After all, this is the NFL, where teams are always just 4-5 players away from going from worst to first.