Friday, December 29, 2006

End-of-Year Grades (part two: NFL Midwest teams)

While I am an unapologetic St. Louis homer, I also acknowledge spending ten years in the NFL wilderness while the Gateway city was without an NFL team. In that time, I was already a Minnesota Vikings fan—my first-ever NFL experience was watching Fran Tarkenton play, and I was hooked from that point on—but in between the Deadbirds leaving and the Rams' arrival, I followed two AFC teams identical in proximity to St. Louis: Kansas City and Indianapolis. (I couldn't follow the Bears for the same reason because of their rivalry with Minnesota. I freakin' HATE Chicago and all their stupid teams. Yeah, I even rooted against MJ and the Bulls in '93 when they played the Suns in the finals. Sue me.) So for this, I still follow my surrogate "home town" teams. Divided loyalites? Not at all. I always pull for the Rams first, then the Vikings, but as much as KC and Indy are shown in the southeast Missouri TV market, it's good to have a cheering interest in both of them.

Minnesota Vikings—Final grade: D+
It's just borderline criminal (pardon the pun!) that this Vikings team could so lose its offensive identity in the same year that they rediscovered a Purple People-Eating defense. This unit leads the NFL in run defense. Their offense runs the ball well behind an effective offensive line. Sounds like a recipe for success, right? Except that their pass defense is less-than-mediocre, their secondary is just putrid at times, and they have no downfield scoring threat whatsoever. This is an offense that can't get it done more than five yards at a time, and once you get in the red zone, that just isn't going to cut it. Brad Johnson is a good role-player if you need a dependable backup; he's just not going to lead a team to the playoffs. Tarvaris Jackson should have been starting QB eight weeks ago. This is simply a lost season, and in a weak NFC, that's simply inexcusable.

Kansas City Chiefs—Third Quarter grade: C+
They can upgrade to a B- if they somehow manage to sneak into the final wild card playoff spot, but that seems unlikely given the advantages that Denver, Cincy and the Jets have over them. Herm Edwards probably exceeded expectations for this team; Damon Huard filled in for the injured Trent Green admirably, and Larry Johnson is a man among boys. But this was still Dick Vermeil's team, and they've gone from "veteran" to just "old." Will Carl Peterson decide to rebuild or just try to restock? I think they need to scrap the whole thing, identify their QB of the future and build around that guy and L.J. On the defensive side, KC has always had tough defenses, but the modern blueprint has shifted against from speed to size and strength. They will have to shift likewise to keep up with the AFC's top defenses.

Indianapolis Colts—Third Quarter grade: C-
I understand why so many people don't like Peyton Manning. I always hated John Elway, Joe Montana and Dan Marino when they were in their prime. Hey, I hate Brett Favre when he's on the field, even though I admire his talent and guts, but he plays for an enemy team. I had a hard time learning to cheer for Montana when he was traded to KC because I had spent a decade screaming for his head as he eluded opposition defenses. So I understand that Peyton rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Having said this, anyone who says they would not want him on their team is either a liar or delusional. He's simply the best QB of his generation, and when he's done, he will have broken all of Dan Marino's records. Don't give me Tom Brady, either. If Manning was drafted by the Patriots, he'd have three rings and Brady would be toiling away on some other team. Think Brady would look great in Cleveland? Houston? Arizona?

But here's the thing: this Indianpolis defense is the worst NFL defense I've ever seen. Period. Worse than the expansion Tampa teams of the late 1970s, worse than the 80s-era Cardinals, worse than the worst you can think of. They don't even look interested out there. They can't get off of blocks. They barely attempt to arm tackle. They can't cover receivers. They're gutless, witless and hopeless. If I'm Bill Polian, I tell Tony Dungy he's got one year to fix the defense. Then I fire the D-coord and hire someone from Baltimore like the linebackers or secondary coach, and I spend all my draft picks and most of my free agent dollars on defensive playmakers. Every team in the league has figured out how to beat Peyton Manning: don't let him get on the field. It doesn't matter if he throws four touchdown passes; your four plus a game-winning field goal (e.g., Tennessee, Houston) gets the job done. This team is one-and-done in the playoffs, and everyone knows it. Including Peyton Manning.

Coming tomorrow: Mizzou sports, including Sun Bowl wrap-up

Thursday, December 28, 2006

End-of-Year Grades (part one: St. Louis)

St. Louis CardinalsFinal Grade: A
The postseason still lingers like a wonderful dream made all the more wonderful by the fact that it really happened. The end-of-year collapse saw a 7.5 game lead dwindle down to nothing but the sickening thought of the undeserving, underachieving Astros crashing the postseason party one more time at the Cardinals' expense. Then Spezio's miraculous triple against Milwaukee saved us for one more day, the last game of the season. We lost. But so did Houston. The clubhouse claimed the champagne tasted just as sweet, but backing into the playoffs never led to glory.

Then came the Padres, whom LaRussa keeps tucked away in his back pocket. Left coast pretenders. Surf and sun wannabes who couldn't hit a Cardinals pitching staff led by Cy Young ace Chris Carpenter. They were gone in four, leaving a gleeful chorus of Eastcoast Sports Promotion Network "experts" to pick the Mets in four or five.

How many unlikely heroes stepped into the lore of Cardinals legend in the NLCS? So Taguchi, hitting the unlikeliest of homers since Kirk Gibson to win game two. Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver, the journeyman and the reject, both stepping up to shut down the overrated Mets hitters. Yadi Molina, the defensive whiz who was an offensive whiz-in-your-pants all season hit the shot that gave the Cards the chance in game seven, leading to Adam Wainwright's two miraculous strikeouts, the final one coming with two outs and bases loaded. The Cardinals win the pennant! The Cardinals win the pennant! I could still hear Jack Buck urging us all to "go crazy," the voice of God's angel who spoke to me from the time I lay in my crib to the day he was called to the highest of all luxury boxes. At this point, just the pennant would have been enough.

But it wasn't. The World Series was reviled and ignored by the East Coast intelligentsia, odious hypocrites one and all, for if the Cardinals had been the Red Sox, they would have been celebrated as the ultimate team in overcoming adversity. Instead, the Cardinals were condemned as "not belonging" and "undeserving." But as Lou Brown told his Cleveland Indians in "Major League," "I'm for wasting sportwriters' time. Let's see if we can give them all a nice big shit sandwich to eat." Open wide, ESPNers. Anthony Reyes, remarkable. Chris Carpenter, transcendent. Jeff Suppan, reliable. Jeff Weaver, championship. Baseball's Field of Dreams has never really been in an Iowa cornfield; it's found in the shadow of the Arch in downtown St. Louis. We are the champions of the world.

St. Louis Ramsthird quarter grade: C+
This season is all about wasted opportunities. This is not a good football team, but it does have some good players—Bulger, Jackson, Holt, Bruce, Little, Wilkins—and some potential for improvement on both sides of the ball. But two blown games to the beatable Seahawks and that putrid roll-over-and-die loss to the excrement that is the Arizona Cardinals is the difference between winning the division and hoping desperately that the Giants, Panthers and Falcons all lose this weekend (certainly within the realm of possibility) while we beat the corpse of the Minnesota Vikings. If this all happens, then we get a wild card game, probably in Seattle, which we could win. I don't foresee the Rams reproducing the Cardinals miracle, but the late season surge does give me some hope that Scott Linehan can still be the right man for the job. Goal #1: Teach Alex Barron how to count and how to remember the correct snap count for 30 seconds at a time.

St. Louis Bluesfirst quarter grade: C- (up from F)
New head coach Andy Murray is doing remarkable things with this team. I watched a bit of a game from one of Mike Kitchen's last efforts, and the Blues looked like bar league players—slow, sluggish, confused, dispirited. In a memorable shootout loss to Nashville the other night, the Blues went toe-to-toe with the Central Division leaders and came within an inch of gaining the shootout victory. They probably won't make a run at the playoffs this year, but I have a good feeling that Murray is going to turn this Blues team into a club that no one else will want to play in the spring, especially teams who need points to stay in or get in to the playoffs. Legace's looking firm in goal, our veterans are charging the net and the youngsters are playing with speed and passion. I think Dave Checkett's rebuilding effort is starting to pay off.

Coming tomorrow (I promise!): Vikings, Colts & Chiefs