Wednesday, July 23, 2014

NFL 2014: Pre-Training Camp Power Rankings

We're back for another go-around. The Bills opened their training camp yesterday. The Hall of Fame Game is in 13 days (!), which is scary. It's almost back. The beast is coming soon for one more installment of the Greatest TV Series of all time.

There will be some changes in the NFL this year. First, we'll have outdoor games in Minnesota and a new stadium for the 49ers, who will play outside Candlestick Park for the first time since before the franchise was any good at all. Then the Buccaneers will be wearing a garish new uniform. Things are a changing.

So, to introduce the season, and where we are now, I'm going to do a brief little Power Rankings before people start getting injured day-in and day-out (quick tip of a cap to Sean Lee and Kiko Alonso, among other players already lost for the year), and power training camp battles are decided. Sure, it is hard to do this blind without knowing, for instance, who will play QB for the Jets. But that's what is fun about this. Let's go. 2014 is almost here.


The 'I Can't See a Way They Make the Playoffs' Sexto

32.) Cleveland Browns (4-12)

This isn't dependent on either Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel starting, it is more about losing Josh Gordon and having a team that, despite a little renaissance in mid-season last year built off of beating bad teams, the Browns are not that good. Their offense will struggle to score 20 points this season with Josh Gordon and with teams getting more tape on Hoyer or rookie mistakes from Manziel. The defense is still good, but it isn't great, despite people's wonked perceptions. There is really no team that looks terrible on paper, but the Browns look the worst of the bunch to me.


31.) Jacksonville Jaguars  (4-12)

The Jaguars could be below Cleveland, but I think they're planning to go with Chad Henne, and while they too are missing their top WR, with Justin Blackmon unlikely to return in 2014, they have more outside Blackmon than the Browns did around Gordon, like Cecil Shorts and Ace Sanders, and maybe some good rookie production from Marqise Lee. The defense is also underrated. Not that they'll be good, but they have decent players and a good defensive coach in Gus Bradley.


30.) Minnesota Vikings  (5-10-1)
Maybe Teddy Bridgewater fulfills all the expectations that people who pronounced him as 'the most NFL-ready QB in the draft'. Maybe Peterson holds off decline for another year and Cordarrelle Patterson continues his Devin Hester impression. Maybe the 2nd year players on defense and the other young guys take another step forward. Maybe, maybe, maybe. The Vikings are building something, and it helps when you get 5 first round picks over two years. Then again, they're in a tough division that should play better with Cutler and Rodgers healthy all year (hopefully) and I still don't trust rookies in today's NFL.


29.) Miami Dolphins  (8-8)

I used to be a fan of where the Dolphins were going, but I've really lost a lot of hope over the past year and a half. Ryan Tannehill didn't seem to progress too much in 2013 despite better receivers to throw to and another year in that system. The o-line will probably be better in 2014, because it is hard for it to be worse, but Ryan Tannehill showed no real pocket presence to make that o-line look better than it really is, something all good QBs apart from Aaron Rodgers, do. The defense has some good players but they never seem to be better than the sum of their parts either, but that side of the ball has lost talent recently as well. Just not a good roster against a tough schedule (AFC West, NFC North)


28.) Oakland Raiders  (4-12)

Most have them at #32 or #31. This isn't completely favoritism, but I think they can be decent in that 4-6 win range way. Matt Schaub might have been broken, but he might return to average-ness with some new players. They have really no one on offense apart from a couple decent lineman and McFadden, but that defense could be interesting. They decided to sign the 2008 Pro Bowl cast on defense (Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Sims, Kevin Burnett, Charles Woodson), but if half of those guys play near what they used to, and Khalil Mack is 75% of Von Miller as a rookie, that defense could be decent.


27.) Buffalo Bills  (6-10)

The AFC East is a mess. For all the people that will denigrate Manning for winning bad divisions, I give you the AFC East throughout the totality of Tom Brady's career. The Bills were a trendy playoff pick two years ago, and they quietly had some good elements last year, like a top-5 defense in the NFL and a d-line that did what it was supposed to do the year before, but I'm less confident this year. First, losing Kiko Alonso is big. So too is losing the architect of that defense in Mike Pettine. I like Doug Marrone as a coach, but continuing to stockpile slender, short receivers isn't really a working strategy in 2014.



The 'Bottom of the Barrel of NFL Average-ness' Quinto

26.) Washington Redskins  (3-13)
There is obvious more talent there than a normal 3-13 team, especially with DeSean Jackson added to Pierre Garcon. Robert Griffin should play better one year removed from ACL Surgery, and I think Jay Gruden will protect him more than Mike Shanahan's offense did (or at least it should, Griffin can be special just throwing the ball). The defense is still below-average at best, but the offense could win 5-6 games on its own.


25.) Houston Texans  (2-14)
The Texans are a trendy pick, and hey, three of the past five teams to pick #1 overall made the playoffs the following year (and a 4th team, the 2010 Seahawks, lost on a tiebreaker), including the past two years with 2-14 teams in Indianapolis adn Kansas City making a 9-game jump. Because of how awesome JJ Watt is, and how awesome Clowney could be, and how amazing Bill O'Brien could be (sarcasm on that last one). Of course, Andre Johnson wants out, but this raking is assuming he stays. My quibble is Andrew Luck and Alex Smith are better than Ryan Fitzpatrick. The AFC South isn't great, but it isn't terrible (and neither is the NFC East or AFC North who they are matched up against). It could happen, but I'm not a full believer.


24.) Tennessee Titans  (7-9) 

I'm actually more of a believer for Tennessee, who has the most 8-8 roster I have ever seen. They have slightly-above average talent at like every position. They are building a really nice o-line, but o-line's haven't really been a feature of Whisenhunt's good teams. Good QB play and better WR play have. I am a slight believer in Locker, and I like Wright, Hunter, Washington as a Top-3. There are nice players all over that defense, good enough to make them perfectly average. Perfectly average is what I describe the Titans. Honestly, that could describe basically every Titans team outside of 2002 and 2008.


23.) Kansas City Chiefs  (11-5)

The Chiefs won 9 more games in 2013 than 2012, and other than the Colts last season, pretty much every other team that has had that type of jump fell back the following season. Alex Smith is still a trusted QB, but that team finished 6-5 last season. They also lost some good contributors over the offseason, including Jon Asomoah and both Brandon's. They never were 11-5 in talent last season, so it isn't that hard to see a drop-off. I am probably underrating them, but if there is any team that is going to fall back this season, it is them.


22.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers  (4-12)

Oh how I want Lovie Smith's Tampa team to jump up and make a playoff push. I guess it is possible. They had a nice offseason, and I really like the pickups of Michael Johnson and especially Alterraun Verner. Lovie Smith will make that defense work. He has a Tommie Harris type in Gerald McCoy. Still, offense matters. While Josh McCown might do a great impression of himself from last year throwing lobs to V-Jax and Mike Evans, the chances of McCown being as good again are low. I have high hopes for this team in 2-3 years, but even in Chicago, the Bears took two years to really gel.


The "Expectations Are High and a Bounceback is Possible" Quinto

21.) Baltimore Ravens  (8-8)

It was a punchline to overcredit the success of the Ravens to Ray Lewis back in the day, but alas, the Ravens win the Super Bowl bouyed by 'Win One for Ray' and then Ray retires and they miss the playoffs for the first time since 2007. John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco together won 11, 9, 12, 12 and 10 games and won a playoff game each year. Now, they are fighting in mediocrity. Joe Flacco suffered behind a bad o-lien and targets and had his worst season since his rookie year. The defense was still Top-10, but the big plays weren't there. Change is coming in terms of personnel, but how long a leash does Harbaugh, who's team has won fewer games two successive years, get?


20.) Atlanta Falcons  (4-12)

This might be too high, but like Misters Harbaugh and Flacco, Misters Smith and Ryan followed up a start winning 11, 9, 13, 10 and 13 games by going 4-12. They had a ridiculous amount of injuries, headlined by Julio Jones, and they had no depth. They do have a few things going for them. First is that Matt Ryan is still very good and Julio Jones is back. The defensive transition to a 3-4 could work, and they went out and got pieces to help that transition, like signing Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson. Jon Asomoah should help on the o-line, as should Jake Matthews. They have a chance to bounce back and will certainly go better than 4-12. If there is any team to have a 5-6 win jump, it is Atlanta.


19.) Dallas Cowboys  (8-8)

What team can go 8-8 three straight years and be simultaneously overrated and underrated at the same time. They're overrated because they don't deserve nearly the media attention they get, but they're also underrated because Tony Romo is underrated as he's not a serial choker who 'can't win teh big one' and their o-line is among the best in the NFL. Then again, teh defense is bad and on paper got even worse over the offseason. That side could ruin the team and I have to imagine even if they go 8-8 for a 4th straight season, Jason Garrett is gone.


18.) New York Jets  (8-8)

I'm positive on the Jets. So are Jets fans. The team somehow went 8-8 last season and although there are serious indications that the Jets could regress, such as their bad point differential, good record in close games, and lack of a real QB, there are indicators that could swing the other way. First, those d-lineman could get even better, and the front-7 is among the most talented in teh NFL. Then, adding Eric Decker, no matter how much he was a product of Peyton, can't hurt, and Michael Vick, when healthy, is still a steady enough QB. They have a shot at a wild-card in a weak division.


The "Soft, Fleshy Underbelly of the NFC" Quatro

17.) Detroit Lions  (7-9)

The Lions still have all the talent in the world, and maybe if they can get out of their own way, and maybe if Jim Caldwell establishes some discipline in a locker room that was sorely lacking in taht area under Schwartz, they can make a nice run at this thing. That said, last season was a golden missed opportunity. It is unlikely Rodgers misses 7 games again. Stafford to his bevy of weapons will likely have another ~5,000 yards, but scoring TDs is still a problem. So is the back-seven. Also, while Caldwell remained respected throughout his run in Indianapolis, consistency and defensive stability was never a trademark.


16.) St. Louis Rams  (7-9)

The only thing holding the Rams back from challenging for 10 wins is the division, and if they get real progress from Bradford and his cast of characters with a more stable o-line, they could despite the division. The Rams have one thing going for them in that they have the best front-4 in the NFL, one that could dominate games and win 6-7 games on their own. They can outright control that line of scrimmage week in and week out. They have flash in the back-7 and if some of their youth gets even better, they could have something special.


15.) New York Giants  (7-9)

I’m not buying into them again. Well, I should rephrase that. I’m not buying them to go better than 10-6. I’ve picked them to beat that record every season I’ve done these picks, including some hilarious one’s like picking them to go 13-3 in 2009 (they went 8-8), or 12-4 last year (they went 7-9). I’m definitely not doing that again. What I may do is point out they have arguably the 2nd best secondary in the NFL, stealing Byron Maxwell, adding him to Antrel Rolle, Prince Amakumara, Trumain McBride (who had a great season as a nickel-corner) and then they decided to add Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the mix as well. They’ll need all those guys against a Philly.


14.) Arizona Cardinals  (10-6)

I think the Cardinals missed their golden chance. The team still has a bevy of young talent, like Patrick Peterson (who is closer to Richard Sherman good than people think) or Calais Campbell, and Carson Palmer is OK, but they also can’t count on Darnell Dockett being good forever, can they? Their offense is still very one-sided and I’m not sure if they’ve fixed their O-Line problems.


The "We can go Either Way, but Daniel the Great Thinks we are Going to Get Better" Trio

13.) San Diego Chargers  (9-7)

Is it wrong that I really like the Chargers but can’t see them winning the division at all. Philip Rivers had a masterpiece type season last year for a team with no running game, no known targets outside of a 3rd-round rookie and a defense that couldn’t ever get off the field. Rivers gets Malcolm Floyd back and Keenan Allen should be even better. They have to play better on defense too, right?


12.) Pittsburgh Steelers  (8-8)

I don’t really like the Steelers to challenge seriously in the AFC, but I think they should have a good shot at a wild-card if not the division. The main reason is Ben, who quietly had a really good season in 2013. He has the best o-line he’s ever had, and the best running game he’s had since 2010. I expect a jump from Markus Wheaton, and that team wasn’t really all that far away last season, coming one foot barely out of bounds from making the playoffs.


11.) Chicago Bears  (8-8)

The Bears have a really bad defense. It could get a lot better if Jared Allen still has something left, and LaMarr Houston plays up to his potential, and they don’t get injured to the comical extent they did defensively last year. The offense, of course, lost it’s QB for 5 games. McCown played exceedingly well, but Cutler’s growth in Trestman’s offense makes them more dangerous than ever before. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are arguably the most dominant 1-2 WR duo in the NFL. It is hard to imagine them not scoring 400 points again.


The "Good but Probably Not Great Teams" Trio

10.) Philadelphia Eagles  (10-6)

I’m not too positive on the Eagles doing any better than holding serve at 10-6. For one, Foles went have a 13.5-1 TD-INT again. He’ll likely have worse production. Losing DeSean Jackson hurts as well. He was their most dynamic player last year. They needed what Jackson brought last year, even in a YAC capacity. The defense didn’t really do anything to get better outside drafting some strange undersized guys. Chip Kelly is an excellent play-caller, but I can’t see them jumping up too much.


9.) Carolina Panthers  (12-4)

The Panthers aren’t as dead as many people believe, at least to me. Sure, they lost their WRs, but they replaced them somewhat. Steve Smith wasn’t exactly in his prime last year, and people are really overvaluing Ted Ginn and Brandon Lafell. Jason Avant is a good player. Kelvin Benjamin could be a good target. What made that offense go was Newton, the running game and Mike Tolbert and Greg Olsen. The defense lost some players in the secondary, but those guys were mostly built off of Rivera’s scheme (or did Mike Miller suddenly become good?). The dominant Front-7 is still there. They weren’t a fluke 12-4. The only thing that really got worse was the o-line.


8.) Indianapolis Colts  (11-5)

The Colts could end up higher mainly because Andrew Luck might be ready to explode. He was beset with Trent Richardson (who can’t possibly be worse), a bad o-line that was somewhat fortified, and a decimated corp of receivers and he showed up with absolutely stunning throws in the playoffs. Now, he gets Wayne (probably not 100%), Hakeem Nicks and Dwayne Allen back. That offense could be the 2nd best in the AFC. The defense is still middling, but middling is generally good enough for 10-12 wins when you have a good to great offense… you know like  the 2002-2004 and 2008-2010 Colts.


The "Great QB, Great Defense, Great Team, but Something's Missing" Trio

7.) Green Bay Packers  (8-7-1)

If Aaron Rodgers doesn’t miss 7 games, they become a great team again. Isn’t the NFL fun in 2014? The talent outside Rodgers has probably never been lower, but that doesn’t really matter as much when your QB is that good. If they get health in defense, and if Julius Peppers transitions well that isn’t anything worse than a slightly below average defense. Couple that with the best non-18 QB in the NFL, and the Packers are still in really good shape.


6.) New England Patriots  (12-4)

The Patriots defense has now passed its offense. Of course, the defense is also made up of historically injury prone players and while Belichick can do decent things with stop-gap players, that hasn’t always worked long term. The offense gets Gronk and Vollmer back, but it is hard to imagine Gronk playing through all 16 games. Brady also dropped off. I realize he threw to no one, but so did Philip Rivers and Big Phil was awesome and Brady was just above average. Unless he rises, they won’t.


5.) New Orleans Saints  (11-5)

The Saints are in prime position to take back the division (and extend the streak of no team since realignment to repeat as NFC South winner) with their small upgrades (Jairius Byrd – who I think was slightly overrated) to what was already a pretty darn good roster. Brees shows no signs of really slowing down (though his bad picks haven’t really left his game), and the offense should still be good despite the loss of Darren Sproles. It also must be nice knowing that they should go no worse than 7-1 at home.


The "Perennial Maid of Honor, and her Less Fun Bridesmaid" Duo

4.) San Francisco 49ers  (12-4)

Midway through last season, I real was against the 49ers. In a way, I still am. I think I am buying into them a little too much here. Still Kaepernick has special skills and that offensive cast is at its most talented. The defense is still good. They play games well. They rarely make mistakes. Everything is sunny and rosy.


3.) Cincinnati Bengals  (11-5)

The only reason to not like the Bengals is losing both coordinators from last season. Still the Bengals roster is probably the best in the NFL #2-53 (up there with Seattle, San Francisco). The ‘others’ at WR should be better (Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert). The defense lost Michael Johnosn but he was kind of overrated. They get Geno Atkins and Leon Hall back and that defense is still loaded with talent at every level. At some point they have to win a playoff game, right? They can’t make the playoffs 4 straight years and go one-and-done 4 straight times.


The "If they meet again, which they probably won't in February but will in September, it won't be 43-8" Duo

2.) Denver Broncos  (13-3)

We know about TJ Ward, and DeMarcus Ware, and Aqib Talib (who replaced DRC) coming over in a nice free agency hall. But they also essentially added Ryan Clady (played 4 games last season) and Von Miller (played 7 games). Those two guys are also two of the 20 best players in the NFL entering 2013. The Broncos lost their 2nd and 3rd best player and still made the Super Bowl, and now get those guys back. Decker is missing, but Sanders and Latimer can replace 85% of him easily. They also get Chris Harris and Kevin Vickerson back from IR. No team “added” more in the offseason than Denver, and they were plenty good all ready.


1.) Seattle Seahawks  (13-3)


They're the Champs, and the Champs stay the Champs until the lose. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Sportsman of the Year vs. Sports Man of the Year

I recently saw the description for an episode of the BS Report with Al Michaels as the guest which said they were going to talk about Doc Rivers being the Sportsmen of the Year. Doc would be a perfect pick given what SI has turned the award into, where overcoming some idiot owner becomes far more important than actually doing really well on the field. It also got me back to the reason the idea was created in teh first place. SI's Sportsman of the Year was the analogue to Time's 'Man of the Year'. Of course, Time's award famously began as a way to focus on the person who 'for better or worse... has done the most to influence the events of the year'. That 'better or worse' distinction is interesting. That's how you get Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin winning in back-to-back years, or Ayatollah Khomeni, or even Putin. So, if we take that definition, who gets the title in many of these years?


2013:

Actual Winner: Peyton Manning;

Manning won because he came back from injury to have the most voluminous NFL season ever. He was close to finishing a season with 55 TDs and more yards than ever for a team that scored more than ever. He also won it because he never has before, despite having a few years where he could have. Being a Manning fan, and loving the long piece they wrote about him, I loved the pick, but there were better ones.

True Winner: Andy Murray, for winning Wimbledon and ending a drought

I'm taking a slightly more Global approach to the award, something that they should do a little more. Andy Murray already had a major coming into 2013, but he did the one thing he was tasked with doing seven years earlier: win Wimbledon. He had to fight off the fact that he wasn't naturally English, but from Scotland, making him a little more of a lightning rod for the British media. He had to fight off the fact that he was playing in the middle of the most top-heavy time in Men's Tennis history, with two of the Top-5 All-Time and another who could easily end up Top-10 All-Time to compete with. Andy Murray had to overcome all that and the yearly pressure of playing WImbledon. He failed many times before but got slightly closer each year. The height was losing to Federer in the 2012 Final after winning the first set. It shows how much this meant that he was more emotional losing that match than winning this match.

Runner-Up: The Baltimore Ravens, for enduring bad losses, playoff losses, and winning with an Organizational Culture that held up to Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and the most successful Franchise Ever.


2012

Actual Winner: LeBron James, for winning the NBA Title

LeBron on talent should win Sportsman of the Year at least once, but the 2011-12 season wasn't his best in Miami (that was last year) or best postseason run (again, last season). James finally achieved what he came to Oklahoma City for, but that was an underwhelming 5-game series that I can barely remember at this point. There were so many other great stories  and athletes in 2012 to cover.


True Winner: Peyton Manning, for coming back

I think Peyton should have won it in 2012 instead of 2013. Who dominated the Sports News more than Peyton? First was his odd semi-sniping with Irsay during Super Bowl week, then his release, his Free-Agent week in the spotlight, his decision to go to Denver, umpteen stories of how he couldn't throw, his noodle arm, grainy footage from Duke, third-hand reports. All that talk and Manning stayed silent and focused and ended up having an incredible season. Manning's season ended with an 11-game win streak, with, at the time, his 2nd highest TD and Passer Rating numbers. But it isn't about the numbers, it was about the generation's best football player coming back from the dead, from reports of retirement (remember the Rob Lowe tweet?), from getting cut by the team he basically built, and leaving for a new challenge at 36, and ending up doing better than anyone could have imagined.

Runner-Up: Buster Posey, for being really, really good, and helping re-create baseball in San Francisco after the Bonds-era ended in infamy... because maybe once in a while it should go to someone who just deserves it for being a down-to-honest nice guy winning a title as an excellent player.


2011

Actual Winner: Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summitt, for being old and amazing

Look, Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summitt are incredible coaches, great people, and legends in their craft, and it was nice to celebrate Summitt in a year when she had to step down due to Adult Onset-Dementia. That all said, give them a profile in separate issues. It made no sense to include Krzyzewski here when his Duke team won the Title in 2010.


True Winner: Lionel Messi, for doing the impossible

There are two international athletes that transcended their sport so much they probably had a decent chance of winning. One of them I couldn't find room for. That was Roger Federer. The other is Lionel Messi. 2010-11 was not his best season at Barcelona, as that was 2011-12, but it coincided with the team's best season. They easily won La Liga (which they failed to do in '11-12 to Real) and won the Champions League with a stirring performance over Man U (they lost the Semi to Chelsea in 2012 with Messi missing a penalty kick). Barca was on top, and Messi was in teh center. He was also a nice kid, a humble genius, that did all this the season after his major disappointment of the 2010 World Cup.

Runner-Up: Aaron Rodgers, for escaping Brett Favre's shadow by rolling to a Super Bowl, and then coming back and having the best, most efficient passing season ever.


2010

Actual Winner: Drew Brees, for winning the Super Bowl for New Orleans

Awarding it to a Football Player is always a strange thing since the season that they generally use to award is the one that finished in that year's February (like here, Brees winning the 2009 Super Bowl). Brees was the star for the Saints, but I personally thought the New Orleans/Katrina stories were played out by 2009. I mean, what, did the 2007 and 2008 Saints (7-9 and 8-8) not care about New Orleans? The real Saints team that Saved the City was their miracle season in 2006, going 10-6 the year after playing games in Baton Rouge and San Antonio. That was a miracle, this wasn't.


True Winner: LeBron James, for leaving and owning the sports world 

This is the first time I'm evoking the 'for better or worse' definition, as LeBron winning for 2010 is less about his on-court accomplishments (winning a 2nd MVP in May) and more about what happened that Summer with his Free Agent tour and ultimately 'The Decision'. Nothing dominated the Sports Landscape like that. We had SportsCenter specials on his Free Agent tours, what the teams courting him gave him as presents. We had SportsCenter breaking down his impending Free Agency the day the Cavs were eliminated. We had everything that was 'The Decision', from teh event, to the media coverage, to the burgeoning Twitter use at the time giving instant feedback, to Dan Gilbert's Comic Sans screed against LeBron, to the 'Not one, Not two....' Intro Party in Miami. Then came the fall, when he suited up for Miami, who started 8-7 and it all started again. Nothing really embodied the true spirit of the 'Better or Worse' clause than LeBron in 2010.

Runner-Up: Rafael Nadal, for returning to tennis better than ever, becoming the first man to win on three surfaces in one season, reclaiming number one, and turning the Chase for Federer into a reality.


2009

Actual Winner: Derek Jeter, for winning the World Series as a Captain

The Yankees finally won a World Series after 9 years and spending roughly $80 Billion on Free Agents, but they did finally win. Jeter didn't even play well in that playoffs, but had a really nice season that included some really dumb MVP love. Jeter is an All-Time great, but this was another, in a long string, of 'let's give the elder guy the award'.


True Winner: Tiger Woods, for losing, cheating and being way too real

Tiger Woods justifiably won it in 1996 and again in 2000. Tiger gets his three-peat for winning the award in a year when his life went to hell. It started with Woods blowing the PGA Championship, losing a 72-hole lead at a major for the first time. Then, came that infamous weekend when everything changed. First came the National Enquirer report, than the accident at his house, and then whores numbers 1 through 40. A few months later, Woods was in sex addiction rehab, he was a taking a leave from golf, his marraige was over, and he went from being the most marketable male athlete ever to being the most hated. Other than maybe OJ Simpson, no athlete has fallen from grace this fast. There was always criticisms of Woods placcid public persona and cursing, un-golf-like behavior, but no one expected him to have this secret, devious, adulterous life.

Runner-Up: Brett Favre, for going to Minnesota, where he always wanted to go, and dominating the NFL season by playing better than anyone could imagine, including beating the Packers twice and throwing for 4 TDs in his first game ever in Lambeau as a visitor.


2008

Actual Winner: Michael Phelps, for reaching the expectations we all had

True Winner: Michael Phelps, for reaching the expectations we all had

For the first time, I have no issues with the selection. There was no better one. I was actually surprised they didn't give it to Tony Dungy, but then I remembered that he only announced his retirement in Jan, 2009. Michael Phelps was the biggest story in 2008 by far. His incredible 8 goal medals. The two ridiculous comebacks he had to get there, including one made by someone who wasn't him. Everything that Phelps stood for. Despite the fact he couldn't really speak in public, Phelps was the athlete with more presence than anyone else. He had loads of expectations placed on him after breaking out before the '04 Olympics. Everyone targeted the '08 Olympics as being historic, and it ended up being exactly that. He was given giant expectations, not the least of which was carrying the weight for NBC's ridiculous Olympics spend, and exceeded them by adding a double-dose of drama with that dominance.

Runner-Up: 


2007

Actual Winner: Brett Favre

Probably the most senseless pick they've had. I guess you can say SI expected him to retire, but Favre really did nothing outside playing like the 5th best QB in the NFL to deserve this award. Yes, he had played for generations, yes the Packers had a good season after missing the playoffs the previous two years; none of that is really enough to win Sporstman of the Year.


True Winner: Bill Belichick and the Patriots, for cheating and then winning in ways unimaginable

These mid-to-late-2000's years are just frought with people winning for the wrong reasons. I really can't think of anything that defined a year like the Patriots during and after Spygate. First, it was a ridiculous story, covered so. It was espionage, with a team many people alreaady disliked because they were so good. Of course, they would just get better. The 2007 Patriots are probably the most singularly impactful team in the last 15 years. Sure, they went 16-0 in 2007, but it is the way they did it. So many questions. Can anyone beat them? Is this the best offense ever? Does this mean Brady's better than Manning? Can they score 100 against the Jets? Are they running up the score? Everythign was in play. The ratings were ridiculous. Some of the highest rated regular season games ever came from the 2007 Patriots. They captivated the American sports scene for 4 solid months.

Runner-Up: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, for cementing their legacy as a dynasty winning together their 3rd NBA Title in 5 years, sweeping through the NBA Playoffs with a 16-4 record with a triumphant sweep in the Finals.


2006

Actual Winner: Dwyane Wade, for winning the NBA Title

Dwyane Wade was a much loved basketball hero in 2006. People thought he was better than LeBron, and why not, when he took over Miami's run to a title. Of course, it helps when referees give you 8,000 free throws in four games. That soured Wade's performance for me. Also, it was one of more regrettable NBA postseasons in a long time.


True Winner: Zinedine Zidane, for dominating the World Cup and leaving in shame

This is the pick that really made me think of this whole random idea of re-giving Sports-Man of the Year Awards. Zizou absolutely was the person who impacted the Global sports world. He dominated the biggest event in the World. It was also the first World Cup since '94 to get major coverage in teh US, given it came off of the heels of the US's shock QF run in '02. Zidane was the tournaments best player, and the most legendary as well, playing out the final games of his career. His mesmerizing performance against Brazil sandwhiching sublime one's against Spain and Portugal brought him to the precipice. One ballsy-as-shit penalty goal against Italy proved to be his last great moment. He cements his spot as Sportsman of the Year with the Headbutt. I personally believe it is the most infamous moment in Sports in the last 15 years world-wide. It was a transcendant moment for a world that was just discovering Social Networks. Head-butt videos helped launch Youtube in its early days. Lipreaders got business. Everyone wanted in. It was a story that had never been seen before, an All-Time legend going out in infamy.


2005

Actual Winner: Tom Brady, for being handsome... and for winning a 3rd Super Bowl in 4 years after being an unheralded 6th round pick and fighting his way to a starting job. 

Brady isn't a terrible choice, because he finally became a true start even by numbers in 2004 for a dominant Super Bowl team, but he wasn't a truly inspired choice either since he was having an average, even by early-Brady standards, season in 2005. Still, it was a decent choice to represent the best football team we've had since 2000.


True Winner: Rafael Palmeiro, and the end of the Steroid Era

Tiger in 2009 was a bad story, but it dominated that year and was at least comical and rife with parody. The Steroid Scandal breaking big time in '05, it was just a sad story. 2005 was the year Congress got involved, the year Mark McGwire pled the fifth, the year Sammy Sosa apparently forgot how to speak English, and Rafael Palmeiro decided to wag his finger at congress... and get suspended 6 months later. No off-the-field story so dominated a sport like steroids in baseball and 2005 was when it reached its apex. It was the first year that MLB initiated actual suspensions.


2004

Actual Winner: The Boston Red Sox, for ending the drought

True Winner: The Boston Red Sox, for ending the drought


Here's the only other one I'm fine with. The Red Sox breaking the 86-year curse was so big it made the cover of TIME that week (I believe the most recent Sports moment to make the cover). The way they did it actually made it better, overcoming a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees, trailing in Game 4 in the 9th inning against Mariano Rivera. You can't write that. Also, I'll forever remember Tom Verducci's brilliant piece on the Red Sox, as he made it about 'Red Sox Nation' (back when they weren't annoying as hell), about a group of fans who lived through sports fan Hell and made it out alive. It was an awesome piece, one of the best pieces of Sports Journalism I have ever read.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

2014 FIFA World Cup: Germany, Building the Monster





When the German National Anthem played out before the Final, I remembered the first time I remember hearing the smooth Anthem of Die Manschhaft, back before the Final of EURO ’08, when they played, and were filleted by Spain. Spain was just entering its Golden Generation, they were about to revolutionize the sport. For all that came out of that seminal win for the Spanish, the possession numbers weren’t that ridiculous. Spain played fast and loose, they attacked more directly than people remember. They weren’t the team they were in 2010 yet, when they seemed to drain the life out of opponents. They were still brilliant though. They won 1-0 off the strength of a great individual goal by Fernando Torres. The German coach that day was Joachim Low, in his first major tournament in charge. The German team that day mostly comprised of the same players that starred for Germany’s surprising run to the 2006 World Cup Semis, played in Germany. The names were familiar. Ballack, Klose, Podolski, Metzelder, Frings, Lehmann. But added to those were a few new names, like Lahm, who had grown a lot in two years, or Schweinsteiger, who burst onto the scene in that tournament. Spain’s dynasty started that day, but so did Germany’s march to the 2014 World Cup. It just took a bit longer.

Germany’s recent success at Major Tournaments is astounding. They’ve gone Semis-Finalist-Semis-Semis-Champion at the last five from the 2006 World Cup to the 2014 World Cup. They’ve been deep in all, but it was only the last three where there was real expectations. That’s when Thomas Muller was discovered, when Mesut Ozil was placed into the lineup, when Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng were put in Central Defense, and when the Polish Duo of strikers were being slowly phased in and out. They lost the 2010 World Cup Semifinal to Spain and then were shocked in the Euro ’12 Semis by Italy (who pretty much owns Germany in major tournaments) but you could see the team getting better and better and better. It wasn’t a question of ‘If?’ but ‘When?’, and that answer is right now.

The two players that combined to score the World Cup winning goal, Andre Schurrle and Mario Goetze, are 23 and 22. They were 15 and 14 when Germany hosted the World Cup, and 17 and 16 when they lost the Euro Final. They grew up in a Germany that was changing the way it played football, to add more fluidity and possession to its ruthful, tactical brilliance that had defined the country’s National Team for (very successful) decades. Jurgen Klinsmann started this process, but Joachim Low spearheaded it forward and perfected it. They had a concerted, country-wide effort to raise kids to play a certain way. The scariest part, though, is Schurrle and Goetze are just two of a long pipeline, many of whom haven’t even arrived yet. Germany will be good for a long time. Even scarier is that they aren’t relying on generational talents to make their system hum like Spain was in Xavi and Iniesta. No, these are just a collection of very good players. None brilliant, but all good enough to be a dominant team.

Germany isn’t boring anymore. They might never be again. They’ve found this recipe that works so well, and have drilled it into perfection. It is using the possession principles of Spain to have a fluid midfield, with the size and speed that Germany has always had to have a ‘Plan B’ if possession isn’t working, something Spain has really missed really since 2008. Of course it helps to have a roster full of stars, and people like Miroslav Klose who is ageless and Thomas Muller who is Klose’s heir in World Cup scoring records. But it also helps to have consistency and compatibility. Seven German Players who suited up for the final (including the injured Sami Khedira) were on the field in the 2010 Semifinal, including Neuer, Muller, Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Boateng, Ozil and Klose. Goetze and Hummels were both on the team for Euro 2012. Now, Klose definitely won’t be there in four years time, and Schweinsteiger and Lahm are 50/50, but the rest should all be there. They have a youth that the World Cup winner hasn’t had since maybe France in 1998. They should have a staying power that should last a while.

Football never works that way, though. Only two times has a team repeated as World Cup Champions, with Italy going back-to-back in 1934 & 1938, and Brazil doing it in 1958 & 1962. Only on two other occasions has the defending Champ made it back to the Final (Argentina in 1990 and Brazil in 1998). Four years is a long time. There will likely be 3-4 players who have large impacts on the 2018 World Cup that barely anyone knows right now, like James Rodriguez was for this World Cup. But who is going to stop them? Spain is probably more than 4 years away from rebuilding to what it once was. Italy is losing Pirlo. France is possible if they unearth a few more good players and they are likely the main European Challenger. The answer might just be in the team that Germany drubbed 7-1.

Brazil started this tournament with what seems to have been a very ominous win. They beat Croatia 3-1, but they gave up the first goal in a David Luiz own-goal, and needed Neymar plus some refereeing luck to bail them out. Brazil was criticized after that first match despite the 3-1 win and they never, outside of the game against minnows Cameroon and the 1st half against Colombia, looked like a confident team. They did play like an energized team, but that energy was turned against them against Germany. Still, Brazil has talent, but more than that they have young talent. Neymar should be better, and hopefully less injured, in 2018. Oscar should be better. David Luiz and Tiago Silva should still be there. The 2018 Brazil should be a good side. They have, just looking four years out from now, the best projected Starting XI outside of Germany and maybe France.

Still, it won’t remove what happened last week to Brazil. It does slightly obscure what was an awesome tournament. There were goals aplenty in the best Group Stages I have ever seen. And while scoring in the knockout rounds was actually down from 4 years ago, the scoring in 2010 mostly came in blowouts (Germany beating England 4-1 and then Argentina 4-0) or monotonous wins were Spain choked the life out of their opponent. Here we had tension and drama. We may have had few great games from the QFs on, although to me Netherlands vs. Costa Rica and Brazil vs. Colombia somewhat apply, as does the final, we had great drama. And ultimately we had a Great Team that won the title.

That’s something I love about the World Cup. There are no real fluke winners. Look at the last five World Cup Champions.



There is no fluke among them. Spain, oddly given how many consider them the Greatest International Team Ever, has by far the weakest resume, as they were the only team to lose a game, and scored the fewest goals and had the worst Goal Differential. Germany is slightly skewed by 7-1, but then again Brazil and France enjoyed easy groups where they dominated. Still, those are all quality teams with multiple World Class players. That’s why, really, Argentina had no business winning. Their Goals Allowed to Goals Scored ratio would have matched up with Spain from 4 years ago had they won 0-0 on penalties (overall mark: 5-0-2, with 8 Goals Scored and 3 Goals allowed), but they were nowhere near as controlling and dominant as Spain. Still, Germany is right there with those other teams. Each deserving Champions. Germany waited a long time to finally get back to the top of World Football, but they did it the hard way, the noble way, and they deserve every bit of it.

Who knows what 2018 holds. Germany looks like the easy favorite and unless there is a rash of injuries or there is another Messi lurking that no one knows of yet, they will be the favorites. But it is hard to repeat. It is hard to stay that dominant, that focused, and to win so many close contests. Despite being easily the best team in this tournament, they could have as easily lost the final to Argentina. Had Higuain taken advantage of Kroos’ awful header, or had Messi done what he has done hundreds of times for Barca and scored on that relatively simple chance right at the start of the 2nd half, or had Palacio controlled it better in extra time, Germany may lose. They didn’t, which is nice because they deserved to win. The best team won the World Cup by playing great football that was beautiful and tactically sound at the same time. They did it by coming together as a nation and fostering a style that pervades through that German team and will do so for the forseeable future. Germany is on top of the World, and they might be there a long, long time.



Friday, July 11, 2014

Fargo, aka How to Perfect Short Series Story-telling




When it ended, with that familiar haunting tune playing out the image of Gus, Molly and Greta watching Deal or No Deal, I was not sad that the miniseries was over. I was overjoyed, I was ecstatic, that it happened. It never should have worked. You don’t need me tell you that, the internet, ahead of its premier, told you that. Here was a beloved movie, one of the more famous, and most unique films made by one of our generations most beloved filmmaking duos. It was a film that was famous for its peculiarity, its odd sense of timing, rhythm and scene. There was no way to copy it. They didn’t copy it. They took its world and made it all its own, and somehow just as good. Noah Hawley did it. He took Fargo, changed all the characters, the motives, the violence, the story, the plot, but made it something just as special. Fargo, the TV series, will never get the acclaim the movie got, but even had it never tied itself to the iconic film, it deserves just as much. That was incredible television.

There is a strange, but ultimately nice, movement in TV happening, a shift, really, back to the days of the Anthology format. One season, one story, one cast. Next year, all new people, all new stories, all new cast. The most obvious recent example was True Detective. Now, I realize that American Horror Story has been doing this for years, but few shows in recent memory have ever gotten the publicity in its first season than True Detective did. It became a phenomenon I was not expecting. It really fit all the marks for being a great show, but also took advantage of every part of the anthology format. First, it allowed viewers to know that the story was going to end in full form in this season. It wouldn’t drag, because it couldn’t drag. Also, it allowed a tv show to have Hollywood-caliber stars work it. You can’t get Matthew McCaughnahey to do a television show for four seasons. But one season? Sure. You can get him and Woody Harrelson. True Detective was a great show. It launched this anthology trend. Fargo, however, was better. That was a perfect season of television.

I like the movie Fargo a lot. I find it, aside from The Big Lebowski to be the Coen brother’s most lovable and re-watchable movie. The cast of characters, the weird accent that doesn’t really exist, the strange ‘true story’ of it all allowing for absolutely pointless, but lovable scenes (like where Marge meets Mr. Nagarita). Fargo is brilliant. The TV show? About as good. I’m shocked really that someone could have taken something so unique and done it well without pandering to everything that made the movie great. No, Fargo the tv show was good on its own, it holds up if you’ve never seen the movie, but it also holds up brilliantly if you have. Noah Hawley, the writer/creator/Don of Fargo is a genius, and this was his magnum opus.

What I loved the most about Fargo wasn’t the incredible performance of Billy Bob Thornton in becoming the brilliant character that was Lorne Malvo, a bad guy that was deserving of everything True Detective pretended what ‘The Yellow King’ was. It wasn’t Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard (which was so hilariously close to the name Jerry Lyndegaard), or even Molly Solverson (brilliant name), no it was the 20 characters that came after. Some didn’t make it through the show, like Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench, or the hot single Israeli woman who was tempting Gus, or Mrs. Hess. Some were comically disconnected to the events of the season finale, like the whole side-plot with Stavros Milos, his idiot son, Glenn Howerton’s brilliantly-stupid Don Munch, and the plagues. That was a side-plot worthy of a Coen brother’s movie. The whole show was. Brilliant character after brilliant character, all distinct and well-formed and all with a place in a weird world that was Minnesota.

Fargo, for 10 brilliant hours, was just a beautiful story that was told and sold brilliantly. Every actor bought into the little quirks in their characters. Martin Freeman probably had the hardest role to play, going from a whipped husband to evil strategist (his thought process to ‘escape’ and pin his new wife’s murder on Malvo was brilliant if not successful), and he was so good. That accent even was so well played, as he did it slightly more subtlety than William H. Macy did on the movie. Billy Bob was awesome, as we all know, but how good was Allison Tolman as Molly. She also had to play essentially the analogue of one of the most loved character from the movie in Marge, and she sold it well and made that character her own.

The story was just as good though. Because of the length, it had the time to go far farther than the movie went. It became a real character study about how good and how evil people can be, and if evil is a product of situation (Lester) or innate personality and lifestyle (Malvo). It was about two hunts, the one was obvious, Molly knowing that Lester has a role to play in the murder of his wife and Mr. Hess and fighting her life to find out how, and then the one that was forgotten halfway through but brought back with Gus making up for the fact that he let a murderer drive away. The story went through so many interesting turns as well, like poking into religion and karma with the Stavros plot, or family archetypes with Gus, Greta and Molly. It wasn’t as surface as The Wire and not as brilliant either, but few things came as close in such a limited package.

I don’t know if the show will come back. Noah Hawley has said he’ll do another season if he can come up with an idea that is as good. He waited years to get his version of Fargo on air. He finally got his chance and nailed it completely. In a way, I don’t want it to come back. It won’t be the same characters, and it, sadly, won’t be as good. That was too perfect. Contrast to True Detective which I want to come back. I liked it less, but I want to see if Nic Pizzolatto can do it again with a new cast. I want to see if the success of that show was more about the setting, the camera-work, the ridiculous mysticism that amounted to far less, or the amazing performances of McCaughnahey and Harrelson. For Fargo? I don’t care what made it so good, all I care about was that it was. It was a perfect little ‘mini-series’ in its purest form. I don’t want to know anything more. The story was told, the characters came and left and made a lasting impression. He accomplished what he set out to, take an enduring piece of American Film in the movie Fargo, alter it just enough, enhance and change enough things, and repackage it is something different but no less awesome.


Mini-Series, or more aptly, Anthology-Shows may be a recurring trend in the future of television. It makes sense. It allows you to tell self-contained stories, it removes issues about serial nature of shows or making sure people get continuity. It allows shows to capture big stars for a year and getting performances that are rare on TV in terms of rawness and size. There are so many great ways that Anthology Series have enhanced TV viewing. The thing is Fargo just perfected all of them. It told a self-contained story that doesn’t have to go any further. It is rare I’ve seen a show finish and not ask ‘what next?’. Sure, the fact that I know what could be next won’t be about these people, but I don’t want to know. I just want to watch it again. Nothing felt so good than hearing the familiar strains of the movie’s defining score play us out to black, or in this case white, and thinking, “Man, that was awesome,” and knowing and not caring that nothing more will happen. Nothing more needs to happen.  

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

2014 FIFA World Cup: Brazil's Different Place in History



So, what compares to what happened yesterday in Belo Horizonte (or Belo Horizonch, as they pronounce it)? Nothing really. Nothing ever comes close to seeing the 5-times World Champions, who haven’t lost a competitive game at home since 1975, lose 7-1 in a World Cup Semifinal, and not only lose by that seemingly made up score, but trail 5-0 after just 30 minutes. Nothing. That will be a memorable, infamous game for as long as the World Cup is played. That will be repeated endlessly the next time these two Footballing Titans meet. That will be the takeaway from this World Cup unless Messi scores 4 goals in the next two games. The story of the World Cup was written. In many ways, that might be the biggest sports story of the year. This was Brazil’s tournament. No team has probably faced as much pressure heading into a World Cup than Brazil.

They needed to make up for their losses in the QFs to France and Netherlands in ’06 and ’10. They hadn’t made a Semifinal since ’02. Brazil had never gone three straight World Cups without reaching the last 4 (which is absurd). They did make the last four, but they seemed a little overwhelmed the whole time. Their first match wasn’t great, but they won 3-1. They actually played better in their draw to Mexico, and then finished off the Group Stage with the most criticized 4-1 win ever. It was unfair, really. This team went 2-0-1 in the Group Stage, scoring 7 goals and giving up 2. You know who else did exactly that? Germany. Sure, they were nervous against Chile, but they pulled through. Hell, World Cup winners all the time need to win close games. Italy in ’06 got bailed out in the Round of 16 with a 2nd Half Stoppage Time penalty to win 1-0 against Australia of all teams. Spain won all four of their knockout games 1-0 in ’10. Teams don’t fly to World Cup titles. Brazil even played a confident, quality game against Colombia, who had probably been the most impressive team in the World Cup to that point. That was the real Brazil. Then Tiago Silva went and did something idiotic, and then Neymar got kicked in the back.

24 hours later, it is still hard to believe that happened. I thought Germany would win. I had a half-written Semifinal Predictions post that had Germany winning 3-1. That would have been fine. A solid loss to a team that, given injuries and suspensions, is better than you. Brazil would have been mad, but they wouldn’t have been embarrassed. That is what happens when you lose like that. The last hour a long extended funeral. People counting down the seconds till the referees final whistle. Germany didn’t hold off, adding two more in the 2nd half. Oscar scoring the most hollow of goals to give Brazil one moment to half celebrate. The tears bursting from every player after the game ends. That was surreal.

It did get me thinking about what comes close to that? What comes close to losing 7-1. Honestly, when you add in the fact Brazil was at home in a situation they hadn’t lost in since Jimmy Carter was president, nothing really does. Still, there are some similar games I can think of.

  • Super Bowl XLVIII – You don’t have to go too far back to find a game that fit a lot of the same themes. The Broncos entered this years Super Bowl seemingly pretty even against Seattle. The Broncos too had players missing (though not players that played in the previous game), and the Broncos kept it close for a quarter. Remember, despite the safety, and the first interception it was just 8-0 after 15 minutes, much like this game was 1-0 through 20 minutes. Then came the first TD, the pick-six, the kick-off return for a TD, and before we blinked, in just 15 minutes of game time more, it was 29-0. Just like Oscar’s goal, Manning’s TD pass to Thomas was hollow.


  • Super Bowl XXXVII – Another awful memory when the Raiders played a quasi-home game Super Bowl (in San Diego) against the Bucs, somehow went up 3-0 (kind of like Brazil carrying play and looking way faster through 6 or 8 minutes) and then the avalanche started. Tampa tied it, took a lead, added two TDs on offense, and then for good measure added two more on defense to jump out to a 34-3 lead. The Raiders, unlike Brazil, kept fighting and cut it to 34-21, but that just made the Bucs add two more TDs on defense and win 48-21.


  • 2013 & 2014 Champions League Semifinals; Bayern beats Barca 7-0; Real Madrid beats Bayern 5-0.


o   These were the first soccer examples I could think of. It was over two games, but Bayern Munich, who featured 5 of the stars of Germany’s thrashing, beat Barcelona 7-0. They took the team many had christened the Greatest of All Time, and thrashed them in a way that was worse than Barca beat anyone in Champions League play. The 1st leg in Munich was bad enough, but the real analogue was the 2nd leg in the Camp Nou. Much like Brazil not having Neymar, Messi sat out the 2nd leg injured, and Barca, already down 4-0, gave up 3 second half goals in quick succession and never even came close to scoring. They gave up, much like Brazil did.
o   This year’s example was actually even closer, in a way. Madrid won the 1st leg of the Champions League semifinal 1-0. They then went to Munich, that same team that did what I just wrote to their biggest rival the year before, and whipped them 4-0. Just like in yesterday’s game, Madrid scored early and killed off Bayern quickly. Before the game was 20 minutes old, Sergio Ramos had two headed goals, and Bayern needed to score 4. Ronaldo added a goal before the half-hour struck and inside of 30 minutes it was 3-0 and Bayern needed 5 and it was all over.

  • 2014 FIFA World Cup – Netherlands beats Spain 5-1; Yeah, the tournament’s first ‘What the Hell?’ game fits in the reverse. That game it was the 2nd half when Netherlands did their damage. Through 44 minutes, it was 1-0 Spain. Over the next 35, it was 5-0 Holland. This game featured the same terrible defensive play by Spain that was so much a factor in Brazil’s demise (though for Spain it was more Pique and Ramos not being good enough than Brazil being totally out of position). It featured Casillas giving up a goal, the same silent reaction from the fans (of Spain, at least) and the same ‘Is this really happening?’ reaction from the media. Spain was shown to be a shell of itself, but that is still a talented team going down almost as hard.


  • 2009 AFC Wild Card Game – Ravens defeat Patriots 33-14. This might be the most apt example. I have never seen a game like this… until last night. In this one, the Patriots entered as a team that hadn’t lost a home playoff game in the Brady/Belichick era (9-0). Tom Brady hadn’t lost a home game since the 2006 season. The Patriots did lose Wes Welker in Wk. 17, and while Neymar is more important to Brazil than Welker to New England, there was a sense of the Patriots barely being favorites. So, how did the game start… let me tell you, I know it from memory because it was too good:


o   Ray Rice scores an 82-yard TD on the first play
o   Tom Brady gets strip-sacked by Suggs on their first possession
o   Ravens score a TD to make it 14-0
o   Teams trade punts after Patriots go 3-and-out again
o   Tom Brady gets intercepted in one of the worst passes I have ever seen
o   Ravens score a TD to make it 21-0
o   Tom Brady gets intercepted on a floating duck by Ed Reed, returned to the 8-yard line
o   Ravens get held for a field goal to make it 24-0

How much time had gone off the clock? 10 minutes. That was even more stunning than last night. The Patriots, the team that had personified not making dumb mistakes and never not showing up in the playoffs, were trailing by 24 and had turned it over 3 times, within a quarter. The rest of that game played out eerily similar to yesterday, with a stunned into silence crowd and a weird feeling of ‘the Patriots deserve to get theirs’ and ‘this is no fun when the crowd is leaving at halftime and the 2nd half is a pointless exercise’.

To me, that is what made yesterday so sad, in a way. The last 60 minutes of the game was a pointless exercise. It was supposed to be a good matchup. Had Tiago Silva not idiotically gotten himself suspended and had Neymar not have been hurt that could have been a great game. Those are the two most historically good countries in World Football. That should have been something special. Instead, it was a disaster. In a way, that is a running theme of every single one of my examples. Both those Champions League Semifinals looked like awesome matchups on paper. Two great teams, in form, playing against each other in the highest of stakes. One game in each park. They should have been epic, instead they were awful. Both Super Bowls had the same thing, the two best offenses against the two best defenses, storylines abound, and the games were awful, the two worst Super Bowls in recent times. No one expected much from that Wild Card game, but the other four were supposed to be epic battles.

We may still have some epics left in the World Cup. Tonight’s Netherlands – Argentina match (my prediction: Holland wins 2-1) may be one that goes down to the wire. The final, no matter who plays Germany, could shape up to be one. A Brazil vs. Argentina 3rd-place game could be the most interesting 3rd place game ever given how Brazil lost and the rivalry between the two. Still, this was a dream World Cup through the QFs. We had a bonkers group stage, such amazing parity, some great stories, new stars introduced the World Over (James Rodriguez), and then four close, if not particularly exciting, QFs. We had a great slate of Semifinals, but Germany ruthlessness, and more so Brazil’s pathetic display, ruined that. I hope 7-1 isn’t the lasting memory of the 2014 World Cup. I hope the only lasting takeaway from that game is that it shows, along with Barca and Bayern getting hammered, and the Broncos, and Patriots and even Spain just four weeks earlier, that for everyone on top, their time is coming.


Thursday, July 3, 2014

2014 FIFA World Cup: Quarterfinal Picks

Brazil vs. Colombia



This is hard, maybe the toughest game to pick. I honestly like both teams. Colombia has probably been my favorite team to watch in the tournament so far. They’ve also been arguably the most dominant. Now, they didn’t have to play the best of teams, put in a Group with the Ivory Coast, Greece and Japan, but they won those games all rather easily and now have beaten Uruguay easily as well. Brazil on the other hand is arguably the most criticized team to ever make a World Cup Quarterfinal. They won their first and third group game by a combined 7-2. They needed a miraculous performance by Memo Ochoa to not beat Mexico by two or three. Yes, they skated by Chile, but they also had the better chances. Also, most World Cup winning sides over the last few years needed some luck. Heck, Spain itself needed two penalty shootouts and five more 1-0 wins in their knockout runs in Euro ’08, Euro ’12 and the ’10 World Cup.

Brazil now has worse problems, as Neymar has been gimpy with a hurt thigh from late in the Chile match. He’s really the best thing Brazil has going for it, scoring 4 goals and generally being dangerous all the time. The other Brazilians have started playing better, especially Fred, but they’ll need to raise their level even more in this game. Oscar was invisible against Chile. That can’t happen again from their main playmaking passer. Colombia on the other hand, has no real weakness right now. Their defense has been resolute, rarely giving Uruguay, who was admittedly missing Luis Suarez, even a sniff of a chance. On offense, they attack with the best of them. James Rodriguez has been an absolute sensation, but the team has gotten contributions from all over their 11. Tio Guitterriez has played well. Abombo and Cuadrado have been great down the flanks. This is a team playing in top form.

As for my pick, it is really tough. Colombia has been my favorite team to watch in this tournament. The unbounding joy that they display underscores how technically gifted they are. That said, Brazil is playing in Brazil. Colombia has enjoyed a large home-crowd atmosphere at all four matches, and that is as good as gone here. Chile enjoyed the same in its first three matches, and when Chile played Brazil there was 90% Brazil fans. Now, Chile came close to winning, and Colombia can too, but I think the Brazilians relax a bit in this game, and open up and show the world the talent that they have on hand. I like the idea of the Brazilian attacking options going up against the soft back-line of Colombia, and in particular Colombia’s aggressiveness going forward more than the reverse against players the likes of Luis Gustavo, David Luiz and Tiago Silva.

Brazil 2  -  Colombia 1


Netherlands vs. Costa Rica


All eight Group Winners won their Round of 16 game. It was easy to say that after a round full of drama, including five trips to extra time, and 7 goals in extra time, that it was all for naught, that all the big boys won. Now, I’m fine with that, given that I always hope the best teams in March Madness go through as well. But there is an imposter in the ranks. Somehow, someway, Costa Rica escaped the toughest group in the World Cup. Somehow, someway, they drew one of the easier Round of 16 opponents. They suffered a 2nd yellow to one of their players, played an hour with 10 men, and only gave up one goal. And here they are. What impressed me the most about Costa Rica was their calmness and brilliantly struck penalty kicks in the shootout. The Netherlands, on the other hand, weren’t all that impressive, but when you have attackers with the individual skilll they display, it may not be necessary to play all that well.

I haven’t watched too much of Costa Rica, as I only caught the 2nd half against Uruguay, was spoiled of the score at work against Italy, and the game against England was pointless. That said, I did watch Joel Campbell. How he does not play for Arsenal more is beyond me. Guy is great as a True #9, great holding play, great receiving, and great ball skills. Bryan Ruiz isn’t to bad either. I’ll be honest I don’t really know the names of the other players on Costa Rica. Except for Yeltsin Tejada, because, well, that is an awesome effing name. I know who plays for Netherlands, I just want to know how. Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder are all close to or over 30 (though Robben has looked about 37 since he was 25). They should be past their prime. Their prime should have been the 2010 World Cup. In a way it was, as they made the Final before losing in the 116th minute to Spain. Somehow, they’ve been better this time around. Some of it could be the good play of the younger players. Danny Blind has been very good, as have the whole backline. But it starts and ends with those three, and hopefully Sneijder’s strike to tie it up against Mexico rejuvenates him as he was, up till then, having a disappointing World Cup.

I have no idea how to pick this game. The Dutch are better on paper. They escaped by a better opponent than Costa Rica escaped by. Of course, Costa Rica will have most of the fans in the stadium, they’ve already beaten two football giants, so maybe their miracle run continues. Personally, I don’t see it. The Dutch are playing to well right now. Robben and Van Persie look to be too dangerous. Everything is coming up well for them, including being on the far easier side of the draw (to me, I would have only Netherlands as being as good as the four teams on the other half). They drew a lot of criticism for their bullish play during the 2010 World Cup Final, and then proceeded to lose all three Group games to flame out of Euro 2012, but the Dutch have done so much to win back our hearts, and it continues.

Netherlands 3  -  Costa Rica 1


Argentina vs. Belgium


Both of these two teams deserved to win in the sense they put up way more shots and controlled play in their games for most of them. That all said, it had to be disheartening for fans of underdogs to see the underdog go a full 90-minutes without conceding to lose in Extra Time. For once, Lionel Messi was shut down by a sturdy Swiss defense. Now he faces a defense about as good. Vincent Kompany is one of the best defensive players left in the tournament. The Belgians have size in the back to make life tough for Lio. Of course, he’s Leo. Nothing is really too tough for him. Belgium showed up in full force for the first time in the tournament, and if not for the brilliance of Tim Howard, that is a 4-0 Belgium win. They played well throughout the lineup from what I saw. Eden Hazard is slowly coming back to life in this World Cup, and Romelu Lukaku wasn’t a disaster for once.

It’s too easy to say that it all depends on Messi, but it really does. Belgium is playing better as a team. Neither were in particularly hard groups. In fact, they were both in the easiest group. And both struggled mightily despite winning all three games. You can really call that the story of this World Cup, struggling mightily but winning close. Argentina needed some of Messi’s magic to avoid drawing with Iran (in a game where Iran should have had at least two goals), and Belgium needed late goals to beat both Algeria (which doesn’t look that bad now) and Russia. They both even continued that theme winning in stoppage time. The actual matchup, to me, is about how well Di Maria and Higuain can play against the Belgian wingers and outside backs. Can they win that matchup, which is winnable, or will they fail to show up again. If so, then Belgium has the clear edge.

I don’t have too much to say other than this should be an exciting game. There is no real ‘defensive’ team left in the World Cup. All can play defense to varying degrees, and many like to sit somewhat back and spring on the counter (Germany, France, even Brazil to some extent) but none are out and out defensive, like Greece, or Paraguay who made a surprising QF run from the 2010 World Cup. That said, these are two teams that hate defense. Belgium had more shots than any team since like 1970. Argentina’s only real talent lies at winger and striker. This should be a flying game. I’ll take Argentina because their home field should be helpful. Also, when you don’t score a lot of goals despite scores of shots, well that might be a problem.

Argentina 3  -  Belgium 2


Germany vs France


What a way to start the long weekend of football. Despite their prominence in the World Stage the last 20 or so years, they’ve never met in a Euro or World Cup in that time. Germany is reaching the peak of their ridiculous consistent run since finishing 3rd in the 2006 World Cup, but like all things in German football, that peak doesn’t seem like it is going to end given the age of their team. Still, this is the last hurrah for Klose, and most likely Lahm, Schweinsteiger, and while building around a nucleus of Muller, Goetze, Khedira, Ozil, Nueur, and the injured Marco Reus going forward is still good, the Lahm/Klose/Schweinsteiger nucleus deserves a major tournament. That all said, France is about to enter another glory phase. Despite losing Franck Ribery to injury before the tournament, and despite head coach Didier Deschamps leaving off Samir Nasri, France has been a revelation.

Personally, I think it is because the Zidane could is no longer hanging over the French team. The first two tournaments without Zidane, the Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, were disasters. The team had no leader, especially shown when then-Captain Patrice Evra orchestrated the coup in South Africa. The coach was shown to be an idiot. The team was at a loss, as other than Thierry Henry and Ribery, the rest of the nucleus of the ’06 team was gone as well. It took a while for them to realize that no one will be the next Zidane, and that France had to move on. They have, and boy did they. Current France has no ZIdane, but they have a score of good players. They have arguably the most talented overall 11 in the tournament. Paul Pogba has been awesome (and did a nice Zidane-ish impression against Nigeria). Benzema has been solid. Matuidi has been solid in the midfield, as has Cabaye and Vermaelen and Evra (who seems to play a lot better when not captain), and Hugo Lloris is a very good keeper. They’ve flown through this tournament, and while it took them a while to get going against Nigeria, mostly due to a really awful game by Olivier Giroud, when they did they were so dominant. The problem for France is the only team that can match them 1-11 is the team they are playing.

I really see this game playing out one of two ways. Both teams like to use their athletes and skill to play on the counter, but it is hard for both to do that. One will have more possession (even if it is just a 60-40 edge, or 55-45). Personally, I think Germany will have more possession, just because they seem quite comfortable playing with more possession (see their win over the US), but that could isolate their slower central defenders against a fast France attack. This is a really close game. All four semifinals are somewhat close on paper, but this is the closest while also being the tactically closest. I don’t have a great feel on who will win, but I do think Germany will have more possession, and France’s defense isn’t really good enough to keep them off the scoreboard. France will get their chances on the break, and Pogba can dominate the game again, but I think they’ll fall just short.


Germany 2  -  France 1

Friday, June 27, 2014

2014 FIFA World Cup: Group Stage Review

Player of the Group Stage: Neymar



Sure, Messi's goals have mostly been more brilliant, and sure, Neymar got a goal off of a dubious penalty (it should be said, not off the noted flopper Neymar himself), but no player entered this World Cup with more tangible pressure. This World Cup means more to Messi's legacy, but it means more for Neymar's present. He can't fail in a World Cup in his home country. Instead, Neymar has 4 goals in 3 games. Brazil 'underwhelmed' their way to a 2-0-1 mark with 7 goals for and 2 against (and like four sure goals saved by Ochoa against Mexico). Neymar's been really good. Somehow, because of all the other amazing moments in the World Cup, he's done it quietly.


Runner-Up: Lionel Messi - Argentina without Messi has a lot of talent, but can't play as a team. That team has no defense at all. They should have lost to Iran. The only reason this team is 3-0-0 is because of Messi. For the first time in his life, Messi can't lean on anyone else... and he's kicking ass and taking names by himself.


Team of the Group Stage: Colombia



There have been a few standout performers so far. Three teams went 3-0-0 (Netherlands, Colombia and Belgium) but no team has been so joyous in doing it than Colombia. They entered the World Cup as the 'Team that should have been the trendy pick if not for the fact that their best player is hurt.' They leave as the latest team that got a lift by losing Radamel Falcao. Colombia has played beautifully, played up tempo, and have unearthed some new stars, like James Rodriguez and Guttierez. Of course, then there's the dances. Those amazing goal dances. They never get old. Long live the Colombia National Team.


Runner-Up: Netherlands - They were a trendy pick to not make it out of the Group Stage, but instead they went 3-0-0 against a tough slate. They blew the doors of Spain in the best way possible: utilize the extreme individual skill so present in the Dutch team. Their win over Chile was a controlled performance against one of the best teams through the first two games. I thought their prime was 2010, and outside of Wesley Sneijder, somehow their top players aged backwards the last four years.


Goat of the Group Stage: Igor Akinfeev



I'm sure Igor Akinfeev made a few nice saves, but the reason Russia isn't going through in a really manageable group is because of their veteran goalie. The goal he gave up to South Korea was awful, obviously. It was a goal reminiscent of the one England gave up to the US. A 6th grader could ahve stopped it. That cost them two points. He was out of place against Belgium, but I can't hold that one really against him. Then, all they had to do was beat Algeria, but Akinfeev was totally lost on the free-kick that tied the game and ended Russia. They'll host the next World Cup, but I doubt Akinfeev will get near the 2018 Russia team.


Runner-Up: Sully Muntari and Kevin Prince Boateng - Look I'm sure the infighting regarding the late payment of World Cup bonuses was a real situation, but for two of the most three veteran players on the team (along with Michael Essien) to go rogue and pull a Patrice Evra was terrible. That team was so good against Germany, but losing Muntari and Boateng hurt them on the field but also psychologically.


Goat Team of the Group Stage: England




This was supposed to be a different England, a new England. They had youth in Sterling and Sturridge. They had left the old 'Golden Generation' behind with Terry off the team, and the Brothers Cole and Lampard mostly on the bench, but none of it mattered. Unlike 2010, they were given a tougher group, and they did nothing with it. Sure, they played pretty well against both Italy and Uruguay, but their defense collapsed at the worst moments, and Steven Gerrard looked sad as an old, aging player, so much unlike Andrea Pirlo. England really isn't talented enough yet. They should be a lot better in 2018. Good thing for them, though, is there were two more established European teams that went home early.


Runner-Up: Uruguay - Sure, they're going through, but I'm pretty sure 9 out of 10 non-Uruguayans would rather have England or Italy going through than a Suarez-less Uruguay. Without Suarez, Uruguay is a 3-0 loss waiting to happen. Also, that effin' biter. How the hell does Suarez do that again? How? How is that even possible. This is the strangest affliction I've ever seen.


Surprise of the Group Stage: Regional Parity



Other than maybe 2002, we've never seen all such parity with the different regions. Only the Asia contingent fell on their face, but we have two African teams in teh Round of 16 for the first time. We have three CONCACAF (North America) teams in teh Round of 16 for the first time. We have five South American teams in teh South American World Cup. That leaves just 6 from Europe, the lowest since Round of 16's became a thing. That's what happens, I guess, when you play in South America. One of the biggest storylines heading into the World Cup was how playing in South America would invigorate the American teams... and alas sometime the storylines are spot on. This World Cup has been amazing for so many reasons, but nothing makes me happier than so many regions doing well.


Runner-Up: All those Golazos - This probably should be the winner, but the goals being scored have been awesome. 2006 and 2010 had basically the same amount of goals. Now, few goals doesn't make for boring games (just take 2006 as a prime example, where we had some great 0-0 and 1-1 games), but often it does. 2010 was the nadir, with Spain sapping up 75% of possession and winning 1-0 in all their knockout games. This year has been different. Counter-attacking is in. Set-pieces are in. The best part is the goals have been all over, as there are no 8-0 games skewing the overall numbers. 


Disappointment of the Group Stage: Spain Dying a Sad Death



I already wrote about the sadness of Spain getting killed so quickly, but days later it only gets worse. Watching their last game against Australia, in those strange black shirts, truly was like watching a funeral. Seeing David Villa subbed out after one last goal, knowing his next stop would be the MLS. Seeing Torres score a goal and remember back to a time when he was the biggest star striker they had, muscling by two Germans to score the winning goal in Euro 2008. Seeing the new era start with many new guys playing the last game and no Casillas in goal. All of it looked odd. All of it looked sad, really. Spain was so utterly dominant in 2008, 2010 and 2012. They played 10 knockout games in those three tournaments and never gave up a single goal. They then gave up 4 in one half.


Runner-Up: Nothing - Nothing else has been disappointing. The Group Stage was utterly amazing. Great games all around. Late drama all over the place. Every team scored. No team got embarrassed. What a wonderful display of futbol.


Team Performance of the Group Stage: Costa Rica winning the Real 'Group of Death'



We all named Group G the 'Group of Death', but we called 'Group D' the Group of Champions. It was the first time three former Champions were in teh same group. We would have a Group Stage game with two nations that combined for 6 World Cups. So who won the group.... the team with barely any World Cup history. Costa Rica shocked a Suarez-less Uruguay with a 3-1 win. They then beat Italy deservingly to lock up a spot, and shackled England to win the group. In the end, that was the real Group of Death. Two former Champions were killed off, just because Suarez played one full game before inevitably biting someone, and because Costa Rica grew up damn quickly.


Team Letdown of the Group Stage: Italy Falling Off



Few teams really looked more solid through the first round of Group Stage games than Italy. They systematically beat England. They had the right mix of good attacking play, sturdy Italian defense, and Andrea Pirlo brilliance. They looked like a good lock to get out of that group. Then came the loss to Costa Rica, followed by the deserved red card against Marchisio, adn the Suarez-gate. Italy has now followed up winning the 2006 World Cup by going out in teh Group Stage two Cups running. Sure, they've done well in the Euro's in the interim, but Italy is dropping on the World Stage.


Storyline that will be Beat into the Ground: Is Brazil vs. Argentina Inevitable?  



Brazil and Argentina have combined for 7 World Cups. They're loaded with good players. They have the two biggest fanbases in South America. They've essentially played three home games. They should meet in the Final. Their on opposite ends of the draw. Argentina has looked beatable, but look at that draw. First, they get a Switzerland team that lost 5-2 a week ago. Then either disappointing Belgium or the USA. Then one of the Holland/Mexico/Costa Rica/Greece quadro, which is not too hard of a path. Argentina probably should make the Final, and we'll hear a lot about it. Brazil, on the other side, has a much tougher path, but they haven't lost a competitive home game since like 1960 (and that's not even an exaggeration). Now they could get knocked out and have that streak continue since losing in PKs is technically a draw, but I can't really see it.


Storyline that Should be Beat into the Ground: Can Germany and Netherlands Reunite?



Germany and Holland have a major rivalry in World Football (as does most European Countries and Germany). It's a rivalry that was at its peak in the 70's topped in the 1974 World Cup Finals which (West) Germany won against the 'Total Football' brilliance of the Dutch and Johan Cruyff. Netherlands have looked surprisingly good through three games, and Germany has been, well...., German. They've been the machine. They were vulnerable against Ghana, but they were so locked in against Portugal and the US. They have defense, they have the transition players, and a great group of fungible attackers. They should win. Holland, on the other side, has more talent than anyone on that half of the draw. In a way it is like in 2010, when Holland had to contend with Uruguay/Ghana/Brazil (and Brazil wasn't great in 2010), while Spain was on the loaded half with Germany/England/Argentina/Portugal. Holland should make the Final.


Coming up next: Rd. of 16 Picks


About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.