Tuesday, September 13, 2011

NFL Week 1: Keep Your Pants On

Ah, week 1 of the NFL season is always a wonderful time of year. Sure it's still 100+ degrees in Texas and our houses are, literally, catching fire, but somehow Fall is still in the air. And it all started with a tremendous Thursday night game between the past two Super Bowl Champs that featured one of the best kickoff returns for a touchdown I have ever seen, in fact kickoffs is where it all begins.

NFL Returners to New Kickoff Rule: ROFL
Certainly it started with the Randall Cobb's sick kickoff return for a TD on Thursday night, but throughout the weekend we saw some remarkable kickoff returns. And this in the face of the new rule that should have made touchbacks as popular as John Lackey at an infielders convention. Yet there were folks running them out of the end zone like quick snapshot of average starting field position for the four teams over this past game 1:

Minnesota Vikings 37.6
Green Bay Packers 34
Detroit Lions 20
Chicago Bears 15

If you look across the league the over reaction to the kickoff rule was intense, and that might just be why kickoff teams were not as agressive as in past years. Look again at both the Harvin return and the Cobb return, in both cases they have clear daylight until at least the 20...so why not return it out of the end zone? The true test will be next week, and I expect to see the kickoff rule go into deeper effect, simply because the kickoff team will actually get down the field.

Don't Over or Under React
Driving home from work on Monday night and avoiding any mentions of the Pats game so I could watch it without knowledge on the DVR I dialed up my friend who is a Redskins season ticket holder. When he answered I asked one simple question;

"Be honest. After yesterday's win did you check the schedule on the way to the car and calculate how many wins you guys will have now?"

He admitted he did exactly that and talked to me about how the entire stadium slowly filled with optimism throughout the game. Something that has not been in FedEx field for quite some time.

Last night I headed out to the local pub to watch the second game with a friend, who is a Cowboys fan. He was still rocked by the Sunday Night loss, acting as if a family member had perished in a tragic blimp accident over the Orange Bowl. He muttered throughout the conversation about his Cowboys and how they have no chance and "we'll be lucky if we get to .500".

And therein lies the challenge of judging week 1. The winners are in pure ectasy, making plans for the Super Bowl. The losers are depressed, thinking that they will be going through another long season of, well, losing. The truth is, you can't really measure a lot from week 1. Teams are rusty, especially this year. You have rookies who are nervous and vets that are over confident. You have coaches trying to implement new systems in a matter of weeks, and teams that have been together for a while.

My advice, wait until after game 4 to make a true judgement on your team. You'll know at that point if they are a contender or pretender.

Speaking of Rust: Uglies Missed Camp
WOW did offensive lines play poorly in week 1. The biggest offender? No surprise, Philly. That offensive line is suffering, but it doesn't get revealed due to the athleticsm of Michael Vick. Rewatch that game and you'll see pockets folding nearly instantaneously and zero push against a defensive line that isn't exactly a brick wall. But Philly wasn't the only one. Overall offensive lines seemed to have been the group that missed an extended camp the most. It takes these guys a while to get into game shape, and right now they are playing their way into game shape, and it shows.

Five for the Prize
  1. Green Bay -- Looking strong in defense of their crown, but more importantly they seem like they still want to prove something. On paper this team is better than last year, simply because they are healthy. It will be fun to watch.
  2. Houston -- My preseason pick to make the Super Bowl looked dominant against an Indy team many thought would be at least decent without their leader. Was it a fluke blow out or a testament to the fact that Houston has finally made the leap? We'll see, but I'm still on board with this team.
  3. New England -- As long as Tom Brady is alive and kicking this team will be in charge of their own destiny. The defense looked really bad at times, especially the d-line and the secondary, but they will gel over time. And the offense is clicking already.
  4. Baltimore -- WOW that was an ass kicking of a conference rival, with a bit of salt thrown into the wound at the end. I loved every minute of it, even if I can't stand the Ravens and their obnoxious fan base. This team is for real and I might just put them ahead of New England if it wasn't for my homerism.
  5. Philly -- I've been critical of their off season moves throughout, I just think they are putting together a Frankenstein rather than a team, but you cannot deny the raw talent and athleticsm of this team. They can out run, out jump, out throw, and out tough you. I'd say that is a sure recipe for a strong season.

Five for the Draft
  1. Giants -- Injuries are not helping this franchise, in fact they are hurting them (see what I did there?). If they can get healthy on defense they might be able to win 6 or 7 games. If not, you are looking at hiring Coughlin for your next company retreat as a motivational speaker.
  2. Kansas City -- Are we ready yet to crown Belichick as the king of the Pats and relinquish any credit from Scott Pioli? Can you imagine being a sports fan in that town right now? Painful.
  3. Seattle -- I don't even know what to say about this team, but the fact that Pete Carroll is still running around the sidelines as a mad man and giving crazy speeches post game has to count for something. Right? Right?
  4. Cleveland -- Granted Cincy is the next big juggernaught in the NFL...OK, even with my ongoing bet with Strout I can't even joke. Browns, how do you lose to Cincy that way at home. You are a bad team, and having watch Colt McCoy play several games in college and last year I'll tell you it's not getting any better. He'll have great weeks, and you'll get excited, but overall he'll dissapoint you.
  5. Denver -- You lost to an Oakland team that had better odds of going winless than pulling out three games this year. A team that's owner is older than Jerry Lewis. And you were at home, and you have a proven QB and head coach. Your team is terrible.

Oh, and Jaws said shit. That was fun, huh?

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

THE At Bat

First of all, shame on me. This blog has sat fallow since early February. A book, a new job and a Facebook Group that is easier and more fun/engaging is partially to blame. But after last night's Red Sox game, I was inspired to do a short post on my main man, Dustin Pedroia.

I said earlier this year on Twitter that as Pedroia goes, so to will the Red Sox this season. And I still stand by that in spite of Elsbury's resurgence, Lowry's return after a year of battling a horrible illness and the arrivals of messieurs Crawford and Gonzalez. It's because Pedroia is the heart and soul of this Red Sox team (with a little bit of help from Youkilis).

For anyone who watched last night's game versus the Halos, you got the feeling that this game meant more than some of the other 27 games the Sox had previously played. No, this wasn't the Yankees but this was the Angels and more importantly, it was Jered Weaver. Yes, the same Jered Weaver that was attempting to break a 120 year old record by going 7-0 by May 2. Up until the 5th inning, it looked like Weaver might just break good old Sadie McMahon's record. A combination of good pitching by two young studs in Buccholz and Weaver -- neither of whom had brought their A game but both of which whose B+ game was better than most mere mortals and some stellar defense pointed toward a low scoring game.

Then came "THE" at bat. If you watched the game, you know which one I am talking about. It was Pedroia versus Weaver in the bottom of the 5th. There were two outs with runners on second and third and the Sox were down 2-1. This felt like it could be another 2-1 disappointment that would send our boys from Boston to a 12-16 record -- 6 games behind the Bronx Bombers. But you could see the determination in Pedroia's eyes. I said to my wife, Melanie, who was watching the game with me, "this game is going to come down to this at bat." Nine pitches into the at bat, Pedroia had worked a 3-2 count and had started fouling off everything.

Four pitches and nine minutes later, Pedey sent a seeing eye single up the middle and could be seen yelling, "YEAH... F@CK YEAH!" as he raced to first. Two runs scored and the Sox took the lead for good on their way to a 9-5 romping of their favorite whipping boy. Even better, the Sox bats exploded in the 7th demonstrating some of the power we were hoping for in the offseason, punctuated with a towering home run over the Green Monster by Big Papi. All was right in the universe again.

Two other VERY important notes that I am compelled to mention:
  1. ONe of the main reasons this at bat was so clutch was that it drove Weaver's pitch count well up over 100, a critical part of the Sox's winning the game.
  2. Alex Gonzalez made on of the ballsiest (and arguably the second most important) plays of the game by fielding a scorcher in the top of the 6th and gunning out Torii Hunter at 3rd on a bang bang play to keep the Angels from evening up the game right after the Sox took the lead.
Does this mean the Sox have turned their season around? Of course not. But it's a long season with exactly 134 games to go. As long as Pedroia stays healthy and keeps that fire in his belly (is there any other way?), I like the Sox chances.

Props to MLB Gameday for the screenshots.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Super Bowl XLV Breakdown

The grocery store was packed this morning, no surprise. Not only folks doing some Sunday morning shopping, but today is THE day in America. No sport in our country brings together people for their championship like football. "Super Sunday" the balloons yelled from the aisles, waiting to be bought with zero copyright infringements issues. Carts were filled with tortilla chips and queso makings, not to mention cans of kidney beans, ribs, wings, ground beef, and salsa...lots, and lots of salsa.

Dodging through the crowd my own basket was filled with makings for my "chocolate chorizo chili', to be served to the nearly 40+ who had said "Yes" to the Evite. Beer was already chilling outside on the deck, and the temps were about to go north of 70. Super Sunday, indeed. The mind was focused on finding some dried chilis when I nearly ran down a woman near the canned vegetables. At first her face read disdain, as if to wonder how I could possibly be so focused not to see another human. Until she glanced at my hat, and I, her shirt. Both read in bold and proud letters, New England Patriots.

Super Sunday is not simply for the fans of the two teams, it's a celebration of all things NFL and all things football. Looking around at the grocery today I saw the following NFL teams represented: Jets, Bills, Patriots, Packers, Cowboys (obviously), Texans (semi-obviously), Chargers (WTF, who moves from San Diego), Ravens, Steelers, and Titans (a now defunct VY jersey, but still). Today we all get together to watch the ending of something we started in the late days of August, frustratingly watching pre-season games. Of course it is better when your team is playing in the game. But if you love this game, today is about you as much as it is about the teams.

The look on the woman's face immediately turned when she saw my hat, "Too bad the Pats aren't playing today, huh?" she said in a heavy south shore accent. My reply could not mask my sudden deflation, knowing how amazing those six Super Bowl Sunday's when the Pats had played had been, "Yeah, always feels a bit different." As I turned to my right, having spotted those elusive chilis she said with full sincerity, "But it's still the Super Bowl, and I can't wait."

Yes, today is still the Super Bowl, and although my Pats and probably your team are not playing, I can't wait.

A few bits of housekeeping before we move on to the game analysis.

Pats/Jets...I'm Done With It

The nice thing about Super Bowl Sunday is that I finally get to put away the Pats loss. This has always been true, no matter when the Pats went out of the playoffs (or, for the majority of the years, never made it in). Today I get to start fresh and just enjoy the game. That being said, I watched the Pats/Jets tilt again yesterday, and noticed several things I hadn't before:

  • Matt Light was owned all game and Mankins was owned for half of the game. They looked tired, old and not excited about playing that game. Perhaps it was the long season, the week off, the freezing temps? But the offensive line simply was not what it had been during the year. Yet, they didn't even come close to costing them the game.

  • Ben Jarvis Green-Ellis is going to be a star in this league. I watched every run this year, more than once, and although our line was stellar, he also has that sense of where the play is going to end up in a few steps. No he's not going to run for crazy numbers, but he is going to be a Bettis like producer for the next few years. I'm excited to watch this happen.

  • Eugene Chung made the right call. Not because it looks like he could have made the play, even without the fumble, although I think he could have watching the tape again. But because Bill Belichick grants his players the ability to read situations and make the decision they feel is the best one to make. A second year player is already in the position to make those decisions, not to mention he had an amazing year. Eugene Chung is the kind of guy you want on this team and if you can't see that you missed the whole point of Belichick during the past decade.

  • The Jets had an awesome game plan. But it wasn't that awesome. Patriots made SO many mistakes.

  • Tom Brady stunk in that game. Go back, watch it. There was something off. He was floating balls, missing reads, and not able to move up in the pocket like in the past. That foot was obviously bothering him, but it's no excuse. The bigger surprise, and Dilfer brought this up on Simmons' pod, was the lack of emotion from Brady overall. He seemed sick or out of it. Perhaps if he doesn't throw that pick on the first possession and Crumpler makes that TD catch on the second possession he comes out in the second half with his normal passion. But we are past the 'woulda/coulda/shoulda' stage and we know if one person will come back with even more fire it's Tom Brady.

  • Not to give too many hints into my upcoming Draft analysis, but I do see Belichick packaging up picks for Fitzgerald...and that could be the move that really seals this team's fate.

  • This team really missed a Bruschi out there during that Jets game. Not from a playing standpoint, but a leadership standpoint. The good thing is that the Pats know you can't buy that leadership in free agency, instead you have to watch a Chung or a Mayo become that leader. Next year they have the experience to become those leaders.

  • Awesome, awesome, awesome season for the Pats. Nobody reading this gave them a shot at a #1 ranking. They over achieved in every part of the game. Sure it was frustrating to not make it further, but look at the big picture. This team is stocked for a run every year until 2017.

Packers (-3) versus Steelers

Flip flops are currently on my feet as I write this column, but it can also describe how I've felt about this game all week. One part of me loves the fact that the Steelers have all of this experience in Super Bowls. It just makes sense that if you've been here before that you'll handle all of it much better. Add to that the fact that they are underdogs and all of a sudden they also have the "no respect" card to throw around.

But what if not having any experience is exactly what you need? What if it's better to be able to take a nap in the locker room before kickoff? What if because you don't have experience you are actually looser coming into the game and can really drive the game plan to perfection? The Packers might be able to walk into JerryWorld tonite and simply dominate this game because they are going to play loose and fast, which is exactly why the '99 Rams succeed, but the '01 Rams did not (well, that and an amazing Belichick game plan, but just give me that one).

Back and forth my mind would go, always thinking about the intangibles of leadership, experience, karma, and the crowd. But slowly it dawned on me this afternoon. Certainly those things are important, but at the end of the day, who is the better team? If you can determine that, and then look at the intangibles, you can get a better sense of who is going to win the game tonite.

The Better Team

The Packers are, by a substantial margin, the better team. Their receivers are super fast and run slant routes tighter than anyone. When they catch the ball they already have gone five more yards before the camera is even onto the play. Aaron Rodgers is the new breed of quarterback in the NFL, someone who can not only make the quick read, but can also scramble and make something happen. The Green Bay defense is not as strong as Pittsburgh's, but they are damn good. Even in special teams Green Bay has the clear edge. So why only a three point favorite?

Pittsburgh too has a great quarterback in that mold, and now that he has had another extra week off to heal Ben Rothlisberger will be a foe to reckon with, whether on the ground or in the air. The Steelers have some very talented receivers, and if they are to win I would guess that Mike Wallace put up a monster game. Hines Ward, future HOFer, shows up for big games and they can still batter you on the ground. The Steelers defense is amazing. Form the front guys to the line backers to another HOFer patrolling the outfield, this is a defense I personally love to watch play and wish that the cameras would pan out so I could watch it from up high to truly appreciate their brillance.

Both teams have survived injuries throughout the year and will be missing key players tonite, so don't talk to me about Pouncey. Yes, Tomlin is the better coach, no denying that he wins that match up. The game is indoors so weather will not be a factor like during the playoffs...wait, what? The game will be indoors, on carpet. Hmmmm, which team has dominated on turf this wear, when their speedy playmakers on both sides of the ball could really grip and rip? That would be the Packers, and that is probably the reason I would favor them, in terms of talent, to win by 10.

But What About The Intangibles

OK, back to the intangibles. This isn't really that big of a deal with these two teams. Pittsburgh has the experience. Green Bay has the characters. Pittsburgh has the veteran leadership in droves. Green Bay has veteran leadership in dollops. Pittsburgh has been down in the playoffs and come back to win. Green Bay has been in control for the most part, not having to truly sweat out a game. In the intangibles department I'd give Pittsburgh a three-point edge.

Just Make a Decision

It comes down to simple math at this point. Green Bay is up by ten with talent, and then up by seven when you factor in the intangibles. Certainly we see a fairly tight game the first two quarters, but it opens up in the second half a bit, and Green Bay starts to pull away.

Green Bay 30 - Pittsburgh 20

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Conference Championship Predictions

I believe I'm now 7-1 in my predictions for the NFL playoffs, and what I wouldn't give to be 1-7 if it meant I could change the outcome of last Sunday's Pats/Jets game. But alas, my fluxcapacitor is in the shop. But today I'm trying to break out of the grief and look forward to some NFL games, because that is what we do as fans.

But before I turn my sites onto the games I did watch the Pats/Jets game again, finally, late last night. In the end the Pats game plan was solid, for the first two drives. But I really believe that only coming away with three points after driving the ball like they did just gave the Jets the momentum. You get 14 or even 10 points during those drives and it's a completely different ball game.

The fact that Patrick Chung has the authority to make that fake punt call if the situation calls for it is the definition of Belichick's system. He prides himself on teaching his players how to shift into situations. You can't be excited about the Pats system when they win and then slam it when they lose. You're either on the boat or off. I watched that play at least thirty times...Chung was right. It was the right call. It just didn't go his way. Again, that works out, even if they don't end up scoring on the drive, it's a four point game at the half.

Matt Light will be gone next season, unfortunately. But watch him in that game and you can see that he's lost at least a half-a-step. I love me some Matty Light, but that ride is over.

Brady played the entire second half with a stress fracture in his foot. It wasn't the reason they lost, but for those that ragged on his Bieberish looks this season and called him weak...really? Really?

Taking all that time to score that TD in the 2nd half was a killer. Reminded me of McNabb in the Super Bowl against us. They just looked beaten down and exhausted. And by that point they were.

For all the talk and obnoxiousness, the Jets had an awesome variation of the Tampa-2 defense, mixed it up well, Sanchez was not their enemy, Holmes catch was ridiculous...they played well overall, hats off.

Respect aside for their play, a coach should NEVER run into an end zone to congratulate his players after a TD unless there are all zeros on the clock. That was the most classless act by a team team that has redefined the term. The Jets have officially pushed out the Steelers as the number one disliked team by this guy.

Pats should be a clear favorite to win the Super Bowl next year...but we all know what that means.

OK, Pats/Jets 2010 is officially over.

Packers at Bears

Wow, the oldest rivalry in football meeting for all the marbles. A cold day in Chicago with some old school footballers like Rodgers, Kuhn, Peppers, Hester...I can't wait for this game to get going and see what these teams have in store. And the team that survives the mistakes of their mistake-prone coaches will surely be the one heading to Dallas in two weeks time. And in my mind McCarthy is the one to take the title of "Least Mistakes Made".

Chuck said it early on, the Pack are for real and most likely were the best all around team as the Playoffs started. I don't see that changing this week, but it will be a really tight and fun game.

Packers 24-Bears 17

Jets at Steelers

How do you root for either of these teams? The visitors are a group of classless fools who shoot off at the mouth, but also delivered when they needed it the most. The home team is led by a man whom I would never want to meet in person, but a coach who is super cool and super good. Nobody wins during this AFC Championship, especially us Pats fans.

Putting aside emotion though and just looking at these teams AND what the Jets did against the Pats o-line on Sunday I just can't imagine Pittsburgh winning this game. But then again, Sanchez turns back into himself and Pittsburgh eliminates the mistakes the Patriots had and then you might see a game. Ugh, this is worse than Sophie's Choice. So I'm going to close my eyes, hold my nose, and type the next line.

Jets 27 - Steelers 24

I feel horrible again....

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Divisional Round Preview and Predictions

No matter how much football you watch the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs is always the best weekend. As fans we get to see the number one and two seeds play at home after a week off. We get to see a scrappy team or two make it to the next round, and see if they are for real. Divisional rivals abound in this round, with the third game of the season between bitter rivals helping to set up something special…or brutal…or both. Nothing in sports compares to the twelve hours of football we will be privy to today and tomorrow.

A few things that we will see, no matter the game:

--Better officiating than the regular season thanks to an extra official and simply a culling of the bad officials. This not only means less interference calls, but also they let the guys in the trenches play a bit more loosely. Watch the OL dominate a bit more than in typical games, especially in Pittsburgh and Chicago.

--Some really stupid coaching moves, particularly if we get to see the new OT rules come into play. I was amazed at how poor the coaches were last weekend, particularly Payton, but now we get to see fairly new coaches under immense pressure in really tough situations. Can you say poor clock management?

--A surprise team begin to gel before our eyes and potentially use it for a run to the Super Bowl. Think about the Giants in '07 (sorry, I know, it's a horrible memory for Pats fans like myself) who came into the playoffs with some confidence in a close loss to the Patriots and really gelled during this round, especially their defense. Could we see the same thing with the Packers or the Jets?

--Two "underdogs" covering the spread.

--A lot of money heading to the public teams (Packers, Bears, Patriots)…I mean a LOT of money. This weekend is a huge gambling weekend, to the point where I promise myself one year I'll watch it in Vegas, who's with me?

Let's take a look at the games.

Ravens at Steelers (-3)

This is basically a pick-em when you are a three-point favorite at home, and it's no wonder, these teams have played so many times that there really will be no surprises. The question will be whether Mendenhall can run through a hole properly and if Ed Reed can shut down Wallace. Let's examine both of these a bit.

Watch Mendenhall play in any game and he will sometimes simply stop running in the hole, before he's been hit. He is anticipating a hit at this point, but by stopping he ends up losing yardage or simply gaining one yard. If he kept his legs he'd probably end up with 3-4 yards and keep the Steelers out of long third down scenarios. This is something to watch throughout the game and it can certainly be something the Ravens defense can use to their advantage.

Speaking of the Ravens defense we can all agree that Ed Reed is SICK. He's basically the definition of a shut-down safety. You know he is there the entire time and you must consider him no matter what. The question I have is whether Big Ben can get to Wallace, especially in the slot. Now last week the Colts threw to Wayne once, but even worse, they didn't move him around to take him off Revis, or slip him into the slot. Pittsburgh has a much better coach and I think they do some really unique things to open up those receivers. Ed Reed or not, Ben has been there before, Tomlin has been there before, they are at home.

Pittsburgh 16 - Baltimore 15

Packers at Falcons (-1.5)
Wow, as a gambler this line is crazy. It opened at -3 and has moved down throughout the week and as of this morning the money line was taken off the board. Means a lot of money is going to the Pack (going back to the "public team" definition above). But I also think that people are overlooking Atlanta and Green Bay has become THE sexy pic for these playoffs. I'm not disagreeing, Rodgers is fantastic and at the end of the day it's the quarterbacks we need to look at in this game…or that is what the folks at ESPN would say. I'd rather look at the lines when Green Bay has the ball.

The Falcons' run defense is HORRIBLE. Watch their last five games and I'd argue I could get a first down on that defense. It's a bit strange that they actually got worse later on in the season since their schedule actually got easier. I'm not really sure why this has become the case, but it seems to me that it is scheming rather than personnel. The DL is not getting the help they need from the LBs, they don't bring the corners up to help plug the run, and overall they seem either hurt or just tired. Unless they come up with an amazing new scheme I'm seeing a BIG day for James Starks running the ball.

But it's not just the Atlanta defense for the reason Starks will rumble, it's the Green Bay offensive line. Take a moment during today's game and after a run replay it, watch how they seal off the middle or the edges, depending on the play. Especially Daryn Colledge, the guard. And if the OL plays well on running plays it makes sense that they will run the ball well, but here is where I REALLY like the Green Bay offensive line…pass protection when the receivers are covered. They hold onto their blocks so well, which helps Rodgers, but also opens up the field for him to scramble. Rodgers averages 8.1 yards per attempted scramble. That's a big reason the Pack will win this game, but it's a coin toss and I say we see our first OT game.

Packers 31 - Atlanta 28 in overtime

Seahawks at Bears (-10)
Why did the Seahawks have a shot last week? Three things:

  1. Home Crowd

  2. Saints were on their 8th string running back

  3. Hasselbeck is awesome when blitzed
In the game against the Bears the Seahawks will not have any of those three advantages. Obviously they aren't playing at home, but not only that, they go into a very hostile Soldier Field. The Bears have a decent running game and it has only gotten better after their bye when Roberto Garza, OG, came back from injury. This is a really solid o-line and I've always loved watching Olin Krutz play center (third most important position on the field, BTW). This is an offense that can put up some points, but also have sustained drives that gives their defense the rest they need.

The Bears defense is really, really good. Why? Julius Peppers, obviously. Brian Urlacher, obviously. And the mind of Lovie Smith, obviously. This team doesn't need to blitz. Meaning that Hasselbeck is going to have to squeeze too many throws into coverage. Perhaps Seattle goes no-huddle like they did in their first game at Chicago, but even then I see the Bears dominating up front and their healthy secondary blanketing coverage.

The more and more I think about this game the more I like the -10 line.

Bears 34 - Seahawks 17

Jets at Patriots (-9)

You know what Rex, it's not personal. Nobody in Foxboro or Foxborough thinks it's personal. In fact, they aren't even thinking about you. They are thinking about your offense and your defense. They are scheming on how to take advantage of a QB that looks hurt, is throwing the ball really high, and has trouble playing in the wind. They are figuring out how to get Branch open down the field, Welker across the middle, and Woodhead down low. It is never personal with the Patriots. It's 60 minutes of football.

All the talk aside, this game comes down to some very simple things, the most important being that the Patriots are simply a better team than the Jets. But a few things really scare me about what the Jets could do. The first being running Shonn Greene...a lot. Greene has younger and fresher legs and the Patriots defensive line is very banged up. Obviously having Brandon Spikes back helps in these situations, but overal the Pats D is pretty lousy against the run. They are really lousy when there are running plays in passing situations. I can see the Jets controlling this game for a bit if they go to Greene and if Brad Smith is healthy. The Patriots will have a tough time with a Jets team that comes into the razor ready to grind it out on the ground. If Rex decides to take the game out of Sanchez's hands that is the best way to beat the Pats this time around. But I just don't think the Jets have the talent, on the field or on the sidelines. Not this year.

I could write an entire column about what I like about this Pats team in terms of the way they have played, the personnel, the coaching, etc. I'll leave that for my season wrap up post, which hopefully you will not see until early February. But what I really love about this team is how they surprised me and how much I love watching them as a team. My favorite moment from the entire season remains when he brought the entire team around him during that first Jets game and although they had the game in hand with a quarter to go had one simple message:

"We play for 60 minutes. We play for 60 minutes."

Patriots 30 - Jets 20

Monday, December 13, 2010

Is It Just Me... Or is Logan Mankins the REAL MVP this Year?

As I was reading the Boston Globe's sport page this weekend, it dawned on me. Logan Mankins is the reason that the Patriots have gone from a good to dominant team in the NFL. After sitting out for seven games, he returned (and started) during the Cleveland Browns game. It's no coincidence that that was the last game that the Patriots lost.

New England Patriots All Pro Guard, Logan Mankins
I know that Kyle Flaherty will back me up on this but just like starting pitching going an average of seven innings versus six can have a profound impact on the bullpen and the other starters, a great offensive lineman (especially a guard -- right or left) can have an equally great impact on all aspects of the game. For one, Mankins, a two time pro-bowler, provides better blocking protection for the running game which of course makes passing easier. And then there's the passing which is up about 2 yards/catch on average in games where Mankins starts. While a lot of that has to do with the receivers (and backs) continuing to have monster YAC numbers, anecdotally, I know this also has something to do with the extra 1-2 seconds Brady has in the pocket to look downfield at his 2nd and 3rd reads. And because the offense is now spending more time on the field, a well-rested defense is also looking better.

Yes, part of this has to do with the emergence of the law firm aka Green-Ellis stepping up his game. And it doesn't hurt to have a second "possession receiver" in the form of Deion Branch. The growth of tight ends Hernandez and Gronkowski as they shake off their rookie jitters also contributes. But at the end of the day, I think many of the commentators and prognosticators have overlooked the importance of having one of the best right guards in Patriots history (second only to John Hannah of course) back in the fold.


Image courtesy http://www.patriotsgab.com/

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Why I'm Not Thrilled about the Crawford Signing.

First, let's get this out of the way: Carl Crawford is, at the very least, a good baseball player. In some ways, he's a very good baseball player. I'm not trying to take anything away from him.

But he has never been a great baseball player. Not ever. Not so far. Yet the Red Sox just signed him for great-player money and a contract that is probably two years too long, if we're only looking at performance on the field. Let me give you a few reasons why:

  • Item: Crawford just finished his age-28 season, which means that we've probably already seen him at his best. He may well sustain that level for several more years, which will certainly be valuable to the Sox, but it's unrealistic to expect him to raise that level, or to raise it by much. He won't get faster, he probably won't translate his speed into 70-steal seasons, and he probably won't raise his walk rate or his home run rate by enough to make a big difference. At this point, he is who he is, for better and for worse.
  • Item: Crawford plays left field, which means that he must -- absolutely MUST -- hit the crap out of the ball to justify great-player money. Yet he's never cracked the top 10 in the American League for either on-base percentage or slugging percentage. (Contrast this to Adrian Gonzalez, playing at another slugger position, whose career OBP is 31 points better, and whose career SLG is 63 points better.) Crawford's been in the top 10 in total bases once, and he's about 15-20 extra-base hits per year below truly elite numbers. Leading the league in steals and triples isn't enough to make up for this.
  • Item: Crawford is clearly well above average as a defender, with superior range, a sure glove, and enough assists to tell you that he throws pretty well. But good left fielders will never be worth as much defensively as similarly good defenders in center or right. If Crawford put up identical numbers, but as a center fielder, it would mean substantially more. 

A lot of discussion among this group has centered on Crawford's personality traits: Is he a focused "grinder"? Is he misdirected? Is he a loafer or a malcontent in the locker room? To all of that I answer: Who knows? And who knows how he'll react as a newcomer to a club with a strong culture and several outspoken leaders? If pressed, my guess is that he'll be fine -- less of a clubhouse gem than, say, Victor Martinez or Kevin Millar, but also much less of a head case than Manny Ramirez.

I understand the economics of the game, and no doubt Crawford will put more butts in the seats at Fenway, and get more people to tune in on television. The financial structure of the franchise requires continual sellouts at Fenway, and lots of ad revenue from broadcast venues. So his contract might make sense from the perspective of selling more tickets. It just doesn't make sense from the standpoint of his performance on the field.

In this off-season, Adrian Gonzalez is the steak. Crawford is just the sizzle.


(Image source.)