Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Carolina Panthers: Examining Building a Monster with a Microscope

There's really so many ways I can start this piece off on. I want to talk the Carolina Panthers, and their incredible journey to this point that started five years ago when they drafted Cam Newton and hired Ron Rivera. It was five years before they hit their peak, now at 17-1 and on the doorstep of history. The Panthers have been many things over those five years. At first they were an offensive force well before their time. Then they became a defensive force good enough to go 12-4. Then they became a punchline, the second team to make the playoffs with a losing record. Now they are a juggernaut, trying to be the fourth team to go 18-1, and the third of which that was happy to do it. But in reality all of those teams are the Panthers, a franchise that has turned into the most model organization in sports and an example of what mistakes to make, and what mistakes not to make on the way.

The Coach

Ron Rivera was in a Super Bowl way back when. He played in one too. He also coached the Bears defense in Super Bowl XLI. That one didn't go too well, neither did that offseason. Rivera interviewed for a few jobs, word seemingly got back to the Bears that Rivera planned to take a few coaches with him if he went to another gig, and the Bears didn't like it. Rivera found himself standing up at the end of coaching musical chairs and found a temp gig coaching linebackers in San Diego. Ted Cotrell was the coordinator, and got himself fired midway through the 2008 season and Rivera got himself another coordinator gig. That weird resconce in San Diego may have been painful for Rivera, but it may have turned him into the coach he is now.

In Chicago, Ron Rivera coordinated a Tampa-2 defense under Lovie Smith. The Bears blitzed more than most Tampa-2 outfits, but they were very much a Tampa-2 defense. With San Diego, Rivera had to change up. He inherited a 3-4 team (one famously coordinated by the mind he'll match defensive wits with - Wade Phillips) and kept them in a 3-4, and opened up his aggresiveness to a new level. Rivera is one of the few coordinators to run both a 4-3 and 3-4, and both to good success. He took a little bit from both to create one of more dynamic defenses in the NFL.

Rivera is being lauded for many things right now. For his ability to lead a team, to inspire confidence in his players, to galvanize a group of men to achieve more than they should be able. But Rivera should also be equally lauded for the more basic part of a coaches job in the NFL: coaching. He's scheme agnostic, fitting his scheme, his defense, to his personnel. Rivera brought that flexibility and variablity to Carolina, creating a defense that is as well coached as any team in the NFL.

The QB

Ron Rivera got the job in February, 2011, it was an unsurprising hire - Rivera was a coach in waiting for many years. His team went 2-14 the year before, and had the #1 pick. The choich made that April in the draft was far less obvious. It is humorous to remember now what the pre-draft talk was about nearly five years ago. Cam Newton had just won the Heisman Trophy and National Championship, but he had a came out of nowhere story that led, understandably, to question marks. Those questions were answered with even more, as people realized that he came out of nowhere because of a few missteps a few years earlier. Cam Newton is a black QB, that much is obvious. He also had the bad luck to come along four years after another black QB, Jamarcus Russell was taken #1 overall. By 2011, Russell was out of the league, a punching bag and pitiable bust. 

Cam Newton was no Jamarcus Russell, and he is no Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker or Christian Ponder, the other three QBs picked in the Top-12. Cam Newton was seen as arrogant, he was seen as aloof. He was seen as having an 'insincere' smile, but no one seemed to really care at the time that what he was was a football player, and more than that, a QB and a leader. Cam Newton has been called many things in his career, but he's never been called not a hard worker, or not dedicated.

Cam Newton started his career throwing for 400 yards. He followed that up by throwing for another 350. He broke all the rookie records in 2011. He never reached those heights again in his next three and a half years. Personnel changes were the primary reason, losing his best o-lineman, best receivers, top running back, It took him till October 2015 to become the player he was in Week 1 in 2011, but in reality he was that guy all along.

The GM

Marty Hurney drafted Cam Newton. He also drafted Luke Kuechly, Not many GMs have drafted two guys that good in back to back years. Then again, not many QBs spent capital, both in the draft and in actual money, like Marty Hurney either. The same guy who drafted Kuechly and Cam (and Josh Norman), is the same guy who gave huge extensions to both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and gave out silly money to Everette Brown and Charles Johnson, and traded two first round picks in future years for second round picks in current years - that turned into Jeff Otah and the aforementioned Everette Brown. Marty Hurney started the rebuild. He was the decision maker for the two biggest parts of the rebuild, hiring Ron Rivera and drafting Cam Newton. He also got replaced.
Dave Gettleman became the GM in 2013. He inherited a cap hell. The Panthers are just crawling out of it. For the first time in his reign, they'll be able to actually spend money on real free agents. Then again, given the success he's had shopping in the bargain bin, he may want to avoid Bloomingdale's this March.

In Gettleman's first year, the Panthers went 12-4, they had a great defense, the second best in the league behind a historicaly good Seattle unit. They had a decent offense. That offseason, the team lost their top three receivers (Smith, Lafell, Ginn), top two lineman (Gross, Vincent), and three quarters of their secondary (Mike Mitchell, Drayton Florence, Captain Munnerlyn). They replaced them by going even cheaper and older, bringing in scrap-heap guys. They won the division again. In the next offseason, they lost even more guys, lost more from their secondary, lost another receiver in training camp. And they went 15-1.

The GM & The Coach

The Panthers started the 2013 season 1-3. They first started 0-2, losing the second game to the Bills in Buffalo after passing up a 4th and 1 that could have won the game to kick a field goal to go up 6. They gave up a TD as time expired. After a win, they lost the next game 22-6 to Arizona to drop to 1-3. In 2011, the Panthers went 6-10, which was good considering they were 2-14 the year before. They went 7-9 in 2012 with more a defensive focus, including a 3-1 finish. But now they were 1-3. Ron Rivera was 14-22 as a head coach. He also wasn't Dave Gettleman's head coach. GMs are notorious for clearing house. Three years later, not only did Gettleman not clean house, he didn't fire one person. He definitely didn;t fire Ron Rivera, and they've gone 33-10-1 since.
Dave Gettleman did the opposite of all GMs, he didn't go out and get his guys. He analyzed what was already there in Carolina, looked at the coaching staff he had, including Rivera, Sean McDermott and Mike Shula, and decided to keep them all. Gettleman was close to 60 when he got the job. It would be hard to blame him if he saw the Panthers as his one chance to run a team and put in all of 'his guys', but Gettleman is a rare bird, the one that realizes that the 'right' guys are more important than 'his' guys.

The Coach learned as well. Ron Rivera was at 1-3 and not 2-2 because he passed up a 4th and 1 with the best short-yardage QB in the NFL. His team lost because of it. He promised the Carolina fans that day that his passiveness wouldn't cost them a game again, and it hasn't. One of the biggest complaints many fanbases have of their coaches is that the coach is too conservative: the coach punts too much, kicks too many field goals, does not throw to win games. It's a legitimate criticism many times, but it is as legitimate to point out that in-game clock management and game decisions are not as meaningful as what the coach does during the week: the game-planning, leadership, etc. Rivera was already good in the latter, but he decided that he didn't want to suffer on the former. He changed, he did the one thing so many coaches never do, admit that they were wrong.

Both Rivera and Gettleman made a forced marriage work. They say that arranged marriages have lower divorce rates than 'love' matches. There are obviously many external factors that influence those statistics, but it seems even in the coaching world there is evidence that adapting and learning to live with your forced partner may just work.

The QB and Linebacker

Cam Newton was the first brick of the foundation. Luke Kuechly was the second. The captain on offense and the captain on defense. Leadership comes in many forms, but in football, where defense and offense are fully separate parts of a whole, it helps to have a main leader on each side. As Cam Newton grew into a great player to match his great bravado and charisma, Luke Kuechly came pre-packaged.
Luke Kuechly was drafted as the 'most NFL-ready' linebacker. It says a lot about the NFL draft process that usually those guys don't end up being good, like Aaron Curry or Keith Rivers. Luke Kuechly, though, is the exception, brilliance since Week 1 of his rookie season. He had 160 tackles as a rookie, but more than that exhibited incredible instincts. He was fast in coverage, fast to blitz, and fast to roam side to side, joining a finally healthy Thomas Davis to create a foundation of what was to come.

In 2013, Luke Kuechly was the named the best defensive player in the NFL. In 2013, Cam Newton had his first breakout season that combined wining with good production, and started to shine on a national stage. The 2013 Panthers were a really good team. After the 1-3 start, they went 11-1 to close out the season, ripping the NFC South from the Saints. The Panthers grew up in a three game stretch near the end of that season. They had won 8 straight games, going from 1-3 to 9-3, and went to the Superdome to play the 9-3 saints on Sunday Night Football. The Saints were at home, where they were still at the point where that was an automatic win. The Panthers started with two quick field goals, and the Saints answered 31 straight points. The Saints humbled the Panthers. Two weeks later, Luke Kuechly and Cam Newton humbled them back and finished their ascendancy.

Two weeks later the Saints went to soggy Carolina, both at 10-4 (the Saints lost to the Rams the week in-between), and Caroline flexed their muscles in teh opposite way. They sacked Drew Brees 6 times. They harrassed him all day. The defense swallowed up the short passes that are normally so explosive in the dome. They picked off Brees twice, once was Thomas Davis and the other was Kuechly. Tackle statistics are always skeptical, but Kuechly is listed with 9 tackes and a ridiculous 15 more assisted. 

But still, the yin of Kuechly's defense needed the Yang of Newton. Despite the defensive brilliance the Panthers found themselves down by 3 with a minute to go. Cam Newton and the Panthers were 65 yards away. Then Cam did as he does: 37 yards to Ginn, 14 to Olsen and 14 more to Domenik Hixon. The Panthers took the lead at 17-13, took the division a year later, and haven't given it back since.

The Team

The Panthers know what they are about. They know how they were created, by an odd coaching hire, a controversial top pick at QB, a 'safe' choice for a defensive leader, and a bunch of spare parts that have rotated in and out because of cap issues. How they've turned that into what they've become is legendary. The 2013 Panthers were led by their defense. They were the second best unit in the league, a strong #2 behind a historically good Seahawks unit. They had 59 sacks. 26 of those were by their top two DEs, Greg Hardy (15) and Charles Johnson (11). Those two players combined for 1 sack for the 2015 Panthers. What's more amazing about the 59 sacks is that the other 33 that were not from Hardy and Johnson came from 14 players, 10 of whom had at least 2. They came from everyone. Tied for third in the team was Thomas Davis and Mike Mitchell, tied for fourth were Captain Munnerlyn and Quinten Mikell, two secondary players. They blitzed and blitzed and blitzed.
Two years later, despite losing Hardy, having an injured Johnson, and not only losing all three of those secondary players, the Panthers had 44 sacks and again the 2nd best defense (and again behind a historically good unit). They switched up, blitzed less, but are still as effective. These types of rapid changes in perssonel and scheme have been normal in Carolina. 

On the offensive end, they moved from a read-option based aerial attack with tons of designed runs in 2011. They were explosive, with a young Cam launching bombs to Steve Smith. Over time under Mike Shula they've molded into a strange brew of conventional deep passing game - much like the Arizona team that they dominated - and a complex rushing attack that is more varied and organized than any in the league. The Panthers have become a malleable mix of a few flashy talents and spare parts that have recycled in an out of the lineup for three or four years. The Panthers have a discernable style but are sprearheaded by the unique talents of their footholds, the dual-threat of Cam Newton who has turned himself into a dominant pocket-passer, and the range and instincts of Luke Kuechly.

The Future

While the Panthers can culminate a five year process today, the future is even brighter. With Cam, Luke and Coach Ron, they have the cornerstones. With Dave Gettleman, they have  GM with a steady hand, patient philosophy and a man who has turned into the best bargain hunter in the NFL. That is the nucleus, and the electrons flying around is a set of players with varying talent but incredible commitment to team, to scheme and to an organization that has turned into one of the NFL's best.
The Panthers have as bright a future as they do a present. Cam and Luke are young; they draft well uncovering gems in late rounds, none better than Josh Norman. They have schemes that can plug and play players. They have a coach who is on the forefront of being aggressive and inspires a tremendous amount of confidence from his players. For the first time in Dave Gettleman's era they even have money to spend. Something special is building in Carolina. We've been able to say that a lot recently, like with Green Bay in 2011, or San Francisco in 2013, or even Seattle in 2013. The Packers and Seahaws have lasted, but the Panthers are younger, they're hungrier, and they may just be better.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Re-Post: Dealing with the End of an Era

Update: February 4th, 2016
I wrote this the week after Peyton Manning went 4-20 with 4 INTs against the Chiefs. It was the worst game of his career. It was the Broncos second loss. He didn't play the next six games due to some combination of being hurt and being benched. At that point, there was a reasonable chance I would never see Peyton Manning play another game.
That said, I had hope. I had hope that Osweiler would falter, that they would drop a few games, that the offense would grow listless, and that Peyton would be waiting in the wings. It worked out about as perfectly as I could have hoped. Not only did Peyton Manning ride to the rescue in Week 17 against the Chargers - a game he, admittedly, mainly just handed off in, but because of some other combination of Belichick's arrogance and Patriots' injuries, the Broncos had those losses with Osweiler, had that listless offense, but somehow still got the #1 seed. 
I got to see Peyton Manning play two more playoff games, and not only play two more, but have his teams get wins over both the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger, finally paying ol' Big Ben back for teh 2005 Divisional Game (yes, this is just the 2nd time they've met in the playoffs) and then see Manning get what will be a lasting lead in the head-to-head playoff matchups against Tom Brady and the Patriots. I got to see it all, and I got to see it from the perverse angle of rooting for the side that came into these battles with the staunch defense and not the high-powered offense.
Peyton has dropped many hints the past 10 days that this will be his last game. First was his comments to Brady and Belichick after the game, the 'this might be my last rodeo' line was not said for no reason. It probably will be. Manning also has seemed at peace during the run-up to the Super Bowl, a stark contrast to the serious, dour manner he showed in both the run-up to Super Bowl XLIV and XLVII, where he kept a serious face plastered on for 14 days.
This will likely be it. I can have some dreams of him going to Houston or LA and having one last run, but it will be just one last run, and one that will likely resemble Favre in 2010. 
Obviously, I am happy that Peyton Manning's last game wasn't a 4-20 performance with four picks, a game where he perversely set the record for career yards. But I also had to relive the emotions of the lead-up to his last game again. I had to live it. Last time it was over before I knew it. This time there was 14 days to worry about it.
I have so many ideas in my mind of what I can write about my connection to Peyton Manning's career once it is finished. This can basically become a Peyton Manning blog for half a year once he's gone. Hell I already started that in 2012 following his release from Indianapolis. But that's really the biggest sign of the lasting impression he's made in my life, that I can write and talk and reminisce about his career and more pointedly how I've viewed, lived and thought about it.
Peyton Manning's last game is coming up. There are many career retrospective's being written, but there really shouldn't be. The NFL has had greats retire before and will always have more and more. I  will always just appreciate that Peyton got this encore from Week 17 onwards to the Super Bowl. In historical terms, this is the biggest player to step away from the game since definitely Brett Favre, if not Jerry Rice. Both those players left in ignominy. Favre had a miserable second year in Minnesota, and saw his legendary iron-man streak end. Rice retired after suiting up in Seahawk blue. Manning at least got a great final performance. Then agin, as the below shows, we were really close to that final song never happening.

Peyton Manning had his worst game of his career, then reportedly tore his plantar fasciia. He may sit, maybe for the rest of the season. That may be a better option actually than taking the field the way he did yesterday. The 'Peyton Manning' period of my life is basically over.
Rafael Nadal is #6 in the world, but he's also a guy who didn't reach a major semifinal, a guy who now has devolved into where getting tough 3-set wins and losing to top players is so normal people hail it as signs of progress. This from a guy who just last summer, after winning a 9th French Open, stood just three Slams behind Federer (and a full eight ahead of Novak, now just four). While he still is just #6, and is only a year older than Djokovic and Murray, it seems like his slam-winning part of his career, is also over.
These two players have probably been #1 and #2 in my book for a good ten years now. I’ve followed each of them closely, Manning since 2003, and Nadal since he burst onto the scene in 2005, winning the French Open just a week after turning 19. These players are basically losing rapidly to father time (somehow, Nadal’s future seems eminently, and relatively, brighter than Manning’s). This period, this era, of my sports fan’s life is over. It was great. I got so many incredible moments and memories, from the Colts 2006 Super Bowl run, or their 2009 season (up until the onside kick), to Nadal’s triumphs in Wimbledon in ’08, Australian Open in ’09, and his two wins over Djokovic in New York. It had it’s fair share of downs as well, from the numerous injuries that Nadal had to suffer, recover and play through, to Manning’s incredible lack of luck in the playoffs throughout his careers.
Both players are also notorious for who they are not. Manning is not Tom Brady, and while I will go to my deathbed truly believing Manning was the better QB, the tide has really turned for that being anything close to a majority opinion – something that basically was a 50/50 discussion just 12 months ago. For Nadal, he wasn’t Federer, but that argument was always more interesting, where he had Federer’s number head-to-head. Now, I have to worry more about Novak passing Nadal historically than Nadal trumping his main rival. Now that both career’s look to be squarely over, I have to not only accept their place, but do the harder, but ultimately more important – I need to move on.
I’ve written many times about my life as a football fan focusing on Manning, and as always with him joined at the hip in history will be Brady. Two years ago, right after AFC Championship Game, a game Manning played brilliantly in, a game Manning won, a game that seemed to tip the scales to the ‘Manning > Brady’ side more than it had ever been, I wrote that I long for the day when both Manning and Brady have retired, when there is no more to gain or lose, when each Sunday is not a referendum on Manning’s career and how it compares to Brady’s. Well, that day is coming very soon. I said back then I can’t wait for it… and I need to make good on that feeling.
But what can I really do. I’ve spent so much time, energy and man-hours in my life watching, debating, thinking and living these two players’ careers. I can’t move on too easily, partly because doing so in some ways invalidates all the time I spent (some would say ‘wasted’) on them. But also because I don’t want to let go that quickly. In recent years, I enjoyed the off-season of the NFL more, a time when I could dream Manning’s team would go 14-2 and roll to a Super Bowl. I’ve wanted nothing more to see that one player win another Super Bowl. Not even for me to enjoy, but for him. I have to accept that hoping for that is useless and it is time to move on.
I will be a sports fan long after Peyton Manning does ultimately retire, same with Rafael Nadal. It remains to be seen if I will follow either sport with the same passion – I likely will with football but I’m not as sure with Tennis. But one of the ‘come to Jesus’ moments of a sports fan is when that first cycle of players, and with it teams, debates, arguments and moments, dies. For almost as long as I have been a sports fan, these two players, and so many more, have been a part of it. The first challenge of my sports fandom is that next wave.
And to be honest, the next wave doesn’t look so bad. At my core I still have two NFL team’s that I pull for (with Manning in Denver, it was about him and him alone); the Raiders, who despite a recent two-game losing streak, have a bright future – and will likely take over from the Broncos as kings of the AFC West as early as next year, and the Colts, who still employ Andrew Luck. But I can also set my sights away from football. Back over to baseball, where my team is exiting a period of prolonged dormancy with a star of the future in Carlos Correa, a man who offers all the promise that Peyton Manning offered to Indianapolis.
It is hard to say these things and not seemed fair-weathered, that I’ll turn my back on the NFL the second Peyton Manning hangs it up, and move right over to the sport where my favorite team has a bright outlook; but it is more about where should I spend my time that I, some would say pathologically, have to devote to sports. Why waste it on the NFL when I can waste it on baseball, a sport I used to love as much before the Astros turned into the MLB equivalent of Blackberry in their organizational philosophy?
There are stars of the future playing today. It definitely changes the equation when those stars first become your age, and then progressively younger than you (Connor MacDavid was born in freaking 1997), and that change does make it harder to embrace. It brings into question darker areas like ‘what am I doing with my life when Player X has accomplished more at 22 than I ever will?’. It will take time for me to fully embrace this new era of favorite players and favorite teams and new sports memories that will last my 20’s and 30’s.
It then becomes a nice combination that the first time your favorite players leave the building for the last time, is about the age when you probably should do so, to some degree, as well. As Manning, and Nadal, and before them Oswalt and Brodeur, hang it up and move on to better things, I should as well. I’m at the age where my career and starting a family and all that stuff becomes more important – the unfamiliar faces littering the playing field is just another sign.
But it never will escape totally. There is no ‘off’ switch in being a sports fan. I just have to hope there is a way to transport the energy that was expended in rooting for Peyton Manning and Rafael Nadal, and the associated heartbreak and elation, lop some of it off to get to a more sane level, and move it all over the Carlos Correa and the Astros, and stars of the late 2010s and 2020s.
Coming to terms with the end of an era is always difficult, but for me it has recently brought up the questions of ‘was it worth it?’, and it is going to take more than it should for those answers to be ‘Yes’ for both Peyton Manning and Rafael Nadal. Undoubtedly, they’ve given me some of my greatest memories as a sports fan. They’ve also produced some of the worst. They’ve also produced me to expend hours of time debating their relative places in history with so many different people – most of whom were online and I’d never meet in real life. I enjoyed that to some degree, but the vapid nature of analyzing QBs, something that has, comically, become worse over time has made me and other Manning supporters expend more than was necessary.
In that sense, I look forward to a world of rooting for Derek Carr and Amari Cooper. For rooting for Khalil Mack. I’ll have to pick up a tennis player (or drop the sport), but there’s a future there as well. But it all leads back to the uncertainty. With Peyton Manning, through the heartbreaking postseason losses, came the hope of ‘there’s always next year.’ That 14-2 season where he rides off with his 2nd ring was always just a few months away. That was a comforting, and sadly incorrect, thought, but comfort was needed at the worst times. That comfort is gone. What lies ahead, with Derek Carr, and Carlos Correa, is definitely exciting (even the Devils are somehow playing well in a year that they probably should be tanking in), but has a ways to go to be comforting.

Back in January, when Peyton looked lost in a playoff loss to the Colts, a game in which he played badly as he dealt with what we later learned were serious injuries to his thighs, there was rampant speculation that he would retire. I wanted him to come back. ‘He was hurt,’ was my line, dreaming that a healthy Peyton Manning, despite his age, would go back to the player he was at the start of 2014, when he was the best QB in the NFL through 9 weeks. I thought one last miracle 14-2 season and Super Bowl run; that a healthy, motivated Manning, coupled with a great defense, would do the trick. Now that he returned ever worse, and again injured, I realize it wasn’t hope but comfort. I wasn’t ready yet for an NFL without Peyton Manning. I don’t know if I will be in 2016 either. All I know is I really hope come September, 2016, when Peyton Manning is chilling at home in Louisiana, and there are 32 starting QBs, none of which are him, Carlos Correa should be hitting .320 for the first place Astros. I just hope that that is all it takes.
.... You are my only hope Carlos Correa

Monday, February 1, 2016

Three Thoughts on the NHL's Thriling, Triumphant Three-on-Three All Star Extravagaza

The NHL put on a show for their all star weekend. It wasn't without controversy, but there was so much to love in the display the NHL put on. Give them this, on the same weekend the NFL held their pro bowl, the NHL showed that taking a few risks can make the 'exhibition' competitive and a great watch for their fans. They experimented with a 3-on-3 format for the actual game in an effort to force players to care rather than loaf around during the 5-on-5 normal All Star Game, and man did it work. In honor of the three-on-three format, here's my three thoughts on how the NHL pulled this off.

1.) The NHL became the first sport in the modern era to make their players care about the All Star Game outcome.

The MLB used to have the claim for having an All Star Game that mattered, with there being a true rivalry between the AL and NL back in the day. Free Agency, interleague play, satellite TV and numerous other factors ended that. Well, the NHL figured out a way to make people care. First, they made this about divisions and not conferences. I actually think there is some inherent rivalry between the two divisions in each conference - specifically in the West where the Pacific Division all stars were probably told how stacked everyone found the Central. Second, they made it into a tournament. A normal game becomes bogged down in the length and the 'exhibition' element of a one-game situation, one where there is money for the winner and loser. Here, just by making it a four team tournament, there was a sense of bragging rights at stake. The players don't want to go home early. They don't want to be seen as losers when there's just so few of them. Finally, the three-on-three format is a hit. It allows there to be more ice for players to play with, and it forces the players to not loaf. Too often in a 5-on-5 plodding game players could just slow it down and mill around. In a three-on-three you can't really do that.

The NHL got a dream set of three games. The first three-on-three showcased many things that the three-on-three gave us: many, many odd man rushes and end-to-end action, and even featured great goaltending. It also featured players playing defense, and some strategy to win the game, like the Metro division pulling their goalie to try to tie the game. It was nothing like we've seen in an All Star game before. The Western Conference played a more normal game, ending 9-6, but even that was a credit to more about great play from the offensive stars than listless defense and hapless goaltending. If anything, that matchup featured some of the best saves of the night, including an absolutely stellar stretch save by Jon Gibson.

The final, game, though, was probably everything the NHL hoped this format would lead itself to. It was an All-Star game, 20 minutes of top NHL players going end to end, and ending 1-0. Not because the players stopped skating, but because they were trying really hard. There was bodying, if not checking. There was definitely back checking. There was awesome saves. There was great play, tough play in the corners. Players extending their shifts, not wanting to get off the ice. The final goal was scored by Corey Perry, and everyone reacted like it was a real game and a breakthrough goal. There was a sense of real celebration when the Pacfic Divisional pulled it off. This was a perfect storm, we saw three different outcomes in terms of score that detailed just how variable this game can be. Next year's game in LA has a lot to live up to.

2.) The Jon Scott Situation Ended Up Great for All Parties

For those who didn't follow, a grassroots campaign, first championed by Jeff Marek and Greg Wyshynski (of the stellar Marek vs. Whysynski podcast), ended up voting Jon Scott, a noted enforcer thought of as a lug, as captain of the Pacific Division. Marek and Whysynki did it for two reasons. First, the idea of having an enforcer, a seemingly 'unskilled player', play in a 3-on-3 game was a fascinating idea. Second, the NHL has limited the fans impact on voting so much, going from where they could vote for the whole starting lineup to just one guy, the 'captain' for each division. Scott easily won the fan voting, despite him pleading with fans to not vote for him. Of course, after he was announced as the winner, the fun started. First, the NHL tried to pressure him to not go for the game, to which he declined, understandably saying both that this is the first time he'll ever have a chance and that the fans have spoken. Then, the Phoenix Coyotes traded him to Montreal, who moved him straight to the minors. By this, he wouldn't be allowed to play.

And then the fans lost their minds. They demanded Scott play in the game. They saw the NHL pulling the strings on the whole thing. The NHL finally gave in and allowed Scott to play in the game and take his role as a captain of the Pacific Division, and seemingly unknowingly turned Jon Scott into a folk hero. The fans, despite many of them disliking the Scott groundswell, started to back Scott as their champion, their man - the everyguy getting his chance to play in the spotlight, and both sides played it brilliantly. Jon Scott was the fan favorite from the first time he was introduced on Saturday Night's Skills Competition. He got a standing ovation when he got up to take his attempt at the 'Hardest Shot'. He was given loud cheers, only matched by those for the hometown Nashville players, during Sunday's game. When he scored not once, but twice, the roof almost came down. It couldn't have played out any better, especially for Jon Scott.

The fairy-tale ending was Jon Scott winning MVP - which he did. What wasn't even part of those dream scenarios was him actually, arguably deserving it. Jon Scott did not seem out of place skating three on three with the best players in the league. His second goal, a snap shot high over Devan Dubnyk on a break-away was a skillfull play. It was a legitimate goal that if one of the real all stars would have scored it would have been raved. It was for Scott as well. The night ended with Jon Scott winning the MVP and then going over and picking up the Million Dollar Check from Gary Bettman - as we all thought it would when this whole drama started in the first place.

3.) Silently, Gary Bettman was one of the Big Winners

Gary Bettman, despite him and the league office getting pilloried for their handling of 'Le Affair Scott', secretly really won the night. First, the obvious part was him getting an extension through 2022, a nice reward for a guy who has done a reasonably good job of building the league. This likely puts him squarely in the center for the next potential work stoppage, but Gary Bettman got what he wanted, and honestly, what fans of the league should want. Through the issues with Roger Goodell, and some of the sheen of the David Stern era coming off, Gary Bettman's era of the NHL is starting to seem a lot better. The plain facts is the value of the NHL has quintupled since Bettman took over. The league is far, far stronger now than it was when he took over.

The weekend itself was secretly a celebration of Bettman's impact on the NHL. The game took place in Nashville. From beginning to end the players and fans attending could not say better things about the way Nashville hosted the event. Part of that is due to Nashville being an awesome city, but it was also partly due to Nashville showing itself as a great hockey market. One of Bettman's first initiatives was the expand the league into the American south, moving a few franchises and opening one's in Florida, Tampa, San Jose, Anaheim, Atlanta and Nashville. They didn't all work, but four of those six did. The Stars have a solid presence, Anaheim has a foothold in the LA area, San Jose is now fully a hockey market, Tampa Bay has a long sell-out streak and has been able to retain fans better than the Rays, and finally, Nashville is hockey mad. Without Bettman, that game isn't in Nashville. He threw hockey franchises at a dartboard of the US Map, to see what sticks. More stuck than even he probably imagined.

Finally, the new format of the All Star game was the league taking a risk. The NHL has never gotten enough credit for taking risks with its game. They've changed up OT to remove ties, first going to a shootout and then going to a 3-on-3 format to avoid shootouts (the regular season 3-on-3 has been amazing). They've altered rules to increase offensive play. They went through a large realignment that impacted historic franchises, like moving Detroit to the Eastern Conference. And they've changed their all star game format to make it matter. Going to three-on-three was a risk, but they hit a home run. Gary Bettman is not a great commissioner, but the booing of him is now fully for tradition rather than a real reflection of how he's ran the league.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

2015 NFL Playoffs: The View from the Other Side

I was a kid, naive. I saw an unstoppable offensive force playing a team that could barely score 20 points. I saw a team that hadn't punted in two games, that had a QB that had the best two game stretch in playoff history. I saw the scoreboard never stop whirring as that team sprinted up and down the field.

And then I saw them lose. I saw them get stopped. I saw the QB get harrassed, throw interceptions, get frustrated, see his offensive line give up numerous pressures, see his receivers never get open. I saw it all, and it changed my perspective about the dynamics of offense and defense, but it also was a game, a loss, that I could never get over. Until now.

12 years later, I saw the reverse.

There have been many painful losses in my sports fan lifetime of watching Peyton Manning. The 2003 AFC Championship Game is not particularly one of them. The Colts were mightily outplayed. There was no crushing moment we fans could turn to, like Vanderjagt pulling a field goal, or Kenton Keith bobbling a screen pass at the 2-yard line, or Gijon Robinson forgetting a snap count. No, there was just the memory of the Colts unstoppable offense get hounded and pounded into mistake after mistake in snowy Foxboro. However, it was my first real loss following Peyton Manning.

I can admit I am a bandwagon Colts / Manning fan. I started supporting him in earnest that year. I haven't stopped though. I'm not going to apologize for that. But I can trace my fandom back to that 2003 season, and the loss to New England was the end of that season, one that ended far before I was ready. The Colts ran roughshod over Denver and Kansas City in those playoffs, and then played a New England team that won tons of games by playing great defense, having Tom Brady not screw up, and doing all the little things. It was an embarrassing, undressing loss more than anything. And 12 years later I got to see Manning's team repay the favor.

While we Colts supporters heard line after line about Manning's superior weapons, we often pointed out Brady's superior defensive support. It took a long time, but he finally entered a playoff game with the superior defense, and boy as fun as it was for me to watch, I'm sure it was even more fun for Manning.

What the Broncos defense did to the Patriots offense was one of the best performances that I've ever seen. Their coverage was great, constantly pressing and jamming Edelman and Amendola, and basically coming within one alien performance from Gronk from shutting the Pats out. The front was incredible. Von Miller had a 'hall of fame' type game, Demarcus Ware had 7 hits. Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson were dominant inside. It was a team effort, all 11 guys and the defensive mastermind of Wade Phillips pulling the strings. It was amazing. It was also so new.

I now know how Patriots fans must have felt the week before the 2003 AFC Championship Game. The talk before that game was how the Patriots were ever going to stop the Colts offense. The Colts were a machine. They hadn't punted! Well, the Patriots fans were all stewing, knowing that the league's best defense could handle it. That the Colts would, indeed, punt. This was basically the reverse.

We spent the entire season watching the Broncos defense dominate opponents and keep a marginal offense in games. Much like the 2003 Patriots. We spent the season knowing that the Patriots offensive line had holes, much like the Colts in 2003 had a weakness in their physicality. We probably should have seen this coming. I did see this coming. I knew that the Broncos d-line would be able to get pressure on Brady, dominating a middling group of lineman. Playing the Broncos in Denver is much different than the Chiefs with a gimpy Justin Houston in Foxboro. Just like playing the Patriots in 2003 in a wintry mix from Hell in Foxboro was very different than the RCA Dome.

It was an out of body experience watching a team that so much resembled the first team I hated, but they also resembled the best aspect of those teams. Over the years, I grew a respect for the 2003-04 Patriots, especially that 2003 version that won because of a dominant defense supporting a clearly limited QB. The 2003 Patriots were special on defense. Their performance defensively in the 2003 and 2004 playoff wins over the Colts were stunning examples of the brilliant heights a defense can reach. And now I can appreciate them.

It will always be comforting knowing that Manning is now 3-2 in the playoffs against Brady, and 3-1 in AFC Championship Games. He learned and grew from those awful games in 2003 and 2004, and has paid Brady and Belichick back three times. But these wins also even out the memory of the 2003 game. I can rewatch it, appreciate the defensive mastery knowing that a dozen years later, I was able to watch the same dominance, just in a far more satisfying way.

Monday, January 25, 2016

2015 NFL Playoffs: Championship Sunday Review

Player of the Week: Von Miller (OLB - DEN)

Von Miller was drafted as a ready-made star. He was a physical freak. He showed that in his first two seasons, picking up Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2011, and then 18 sacks in 2012. He then got caught in a weird drug-testing thing and tore his ACL in 2013, and while he's had 10-12 sacks in 2014-15, he's almost become a forgotten star. Well... not so anymore. That was one of the most dominant performances I've seen by a defensive player in a playoff game in a long time. He had two sacks, numerous hurries and hits, and added an interception for good measure. Von Miller just abused Marcus Cannon and Sebastian Vollmer repeatedly. That's the type of game that the Broncos imagined when drafting him at #2 overall in 2011.

Runner-Up: Cam Newton (QB, CAR)

The guy who was drafted right before Von Miller is pretty darn good as well. Cam Newton was amazing save for the one bad throw that was picked. He controlled that game from the pocket as much as on the move. Anytime you get two rushing and two passing TDs in the same game it is a special performance. Cam Newton has really grown into a tremendous player. More on him and the Panthers overall coming up.

Goat of the Week: The Cardinals Team

I'm going to rehash this too many times, but I was so disappointed in the Cardinals ruining what on paper was supposed to be a great NFC Championship Game. The headline was Palmer's awful day, but how about the other Cardinals stars not showing up. Larry Fitzgerald with the drops, Calais Campbell being invisible and Patrick Peterson having a nightmare game. The Cardinals were a mess from beginning to end, and they literally fumbled and threw away any opportunity that they had. The Cardinals were at worst the 2nd best team in the NFL through the regular season, but all that swagger that they played with was just so gallingly missing in this game.

Runner-Up: Bill Belichick and the Patriots Coaching Staff

The Patriots are always well coached and well prepared. Even in their playoff losses they generally seem to know what they're doing. This game was just not like that at all - starting with the Patriots choosing to receive after winning the toss which was immediately translated into a punt and Broncos TD. The Patriots offensive gameplan was a disaster, rarely ever giving Brady help and consistently leaving their tackles on their own against Ware and Miller. Then there's the odd 4th down choices. Nothing really worked well.

Surprise of the Week: The Panthers Offensive Line

The Panthers o-line was supposed to be one of their three big weaknesses entering the season, along with their secondary and their receivers. The secondary still has a few soft spots due to injury, and the receivers are still playing over their heads, but the o-line has really gelled into a strength. The read every single blitz the Cardinals threw at them. Few teams blitz as effectively as the Cardinals and the Panthers kept Newton clean the entire game, which allowed their deep routes to develop. The Panthers offensive line is facing a very different but even tougher test ahead, for which they'll need at least a repeat performance.

Runner-Up: The Broncos Special Teams

At this point I shouldn't be surprised given how good the Special Teams were against Pittsburgh as well, but the Broncos winning the Special Teams matchup against the Patriots was a surprise. They are consistently great at pinning the opposition back on punts. McManus is an automatic touchback, and hit another 50+ yard field goal. Plus, they didn't miss an XP!

Disappointment of the Week: The Cardinals Team

Honestly, it bugged me how bad they were. Obviously first because I was expecting, hoping and wanting a great game between two heretofore great teams, but more than that I really am starting to hate the reaction to Arizona's loss. Yes, Palmer had a bad game. No, he isn't lost as a QB. Let's not forget he was the best passing QB in the NFL this season. Maybe that finger injury was worse than expected. No, Bruce Arians doesn't have to change his style. No, the Cardinals aren't chokers. Play that game 10 times, the Panthers may win 7, but probably none of them end up 49-15 again. This was the worst possible outcome, and just ruined what should have been a fascinating 3 hours.

Runner-Up: Nothing

Really, I couldn't think of anything else. The Cardinals performance was that much worse than anything else.

Team Performance of the Week: The Broncos Front Four

Von Miller deservedly got the headlines with a 2.5 sack and interception game, but that whole front was just awesome. Ware had 7 hits, which is a JJ Watt like performance. Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson and Antonio Smith were great inside. Even when Shaquill Barrett and Vance Walker came in they made plays. I can think of any three playoff games in recent memory that were close to this. The first is the obvious connection, the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. The other two were the 49ers in the 2011 NFC Championship against the Giants (6 sacks, 17 hits), and the last was the Vikings in the 2009 NFC Divisional against the Cowboys (6 sacks, 13 hits - but on just 40 dropbacks). The Broncos were better though. On that final TD drive, they basically got to Brady every single play. Brady didn't play well, but even if he was on his game, the Patriots weren't scoring 20+.

Runner-Up: The Panthers Offense

The Panthers had the quietest 500 point season I've ever seen. They led the league in scoring and were mightily consistent, basically scoring between 27-40 points every game save three, but this was another level. I already detailed both Cam and the line, but how about Greg Olsen still managing to get open, or Jerrico Cotchery making tough catches, or Corey Brown getting open, or Devin Funchess making a contested catch for a TD. The Panthers are such a damn good team,

Team Laydown of the Week: The Cardinals Defense

The Cardinals defense is good. It has been good all year. It has been good even after losing Tyrann Mathieu. I realize the Packers were missing all the WRs, but the Cardinals still held that passing game to 150 yards before the hail mary's. That defense was nowhere to be found on Sunday. They blitzed but were swallowed up by the Panthers o-line. Their normally stout man coverage was awful, letting receivers run free all over the place. They've been a top run defense for years now, but couldn't even do that well. The Cardinals defense really needs to get a true pass rusher who isn't a 35-year old Dwight Freeney, but even then there was no excuse for that performance.

Runner-Up: The Patriots Receivers (non-Gronk)

Rob Gronkowski is not human, and he was the only person keeping the Patriots in that game at all. The rest of the receiving core was just a disaster. Julian Edelman, who got so many plaudits, did nothing, barely getting 7 yards a catch. Amendola did less. LaFell and Keyshawn Martin played a combined 90 snaps, but got just one target. If James White is leading the team in tagets, you know the scrappy white guys did not do their job.

Storyline that will be Beaten Into the Ground over the next two weeks: The Last Rodeo for Manning

Obviously, the main storyline for the Super Bowl will be Peyton Manning's last ride, as it seems a fait accompli that this is his last game. He may pull a Favre and come back for another season, but this is likely it. In a way, that is a huge story, but it isn't the story. Win or lose, this game will be decided by the other Broncos. He has to be along for the ride. We can break down Manning's legacy all we want but it shouldn't be decided by this game.

Storyline that should be beaten into the ground the next two weeks: The Future vs. the Past

The Broncos are in many ways a young team, but there is a certain sense that this is the end. There won't be a Manning next year, and while Osweiler showed promise he also showed a ceiling that he needs to raise. Still, for guys like Ware (11th season), Talib (9th season), Thomas (6th season), there is a sense that they have to do this now. On the other side is a team that along with Seattle has probably the brightest future. I think people have forgotten with all the 15-1 and 500 points and Cam dabbin' that the Panthers lost their #1 WR in training camp. Win or lose, they'll be adding Kelvin Benjamin and getting cap room for the frst time in a half decade in the offseason. That is terrifying for the rest of the league. Manning better win now, not only because he's old, because this may be his only shot. The Panthers may be making the first of a few trips here.

Storyine that needs to be beaten into the ground for at least a day or two: Not everything Belichick Does is Gold

Every Patriots fan that said it was some brilliant master plan to half-ass through Week 16-17, choke away the #1 seed in the process, because BB wanted the #2 seed to avoid Pittsburgh or the Jets, and because keeping guys healthy is more important than the #1 seed, should personally apologize to the world. No, your coach isn't a genius for throwing the last two games. Also, I like the symmetry that just like Manning being 2-7 in Foxboro in his career, Belichick is now 2-9 in Denver.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Top-20 QBs: #16 - Ken Stabler

#16 - Ken Stabler

Who embodied the Raiders? Sure, the obvious answer is Al Davis. There's no real debate there; how could anyone be a better renegade than a man who successfully sued the league he was a part of. But beyond Al, on the field, it doesn't get more Silver and Black than Kenny Stabler.

There were better players on the Raiders - a franchise with a score of HOFers, including Stabler's own teammates like Jim Otto, Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Willie Brown and Fred Biletnikoff, but those guys were known more for their ability than their personality. Stabler was the opposite, which made him what the Raiders should be.

There are so many Ken Stabler stories that people don't even know, which is amazing given how many stories there are about his antics and personality and championship-level partying. Ken Stabler was Joe Namath without the press, but with as much game. He was a noted partyer, drinker, and lovemaker. The stores of him in a bar the night before the game, playbook in one hand, and mug of beer in the other. The best part was 12 hours later he was leading a team that all they did was win 10+ games year after year.

Stabler may not have made the Hall of Fame (we'll get to that in a minute), but make no mistake of his deserving case. In his 10 years in Oakland (1970-1979), he went 69-26-1 as a starter, had a Y/A of 7.7, threw TDs on 6.0% of his passes; and had a QB rating of 80.2 with a completion percentage of 59.9%. Those are, given this was the 1970's, outrageous numbers.

For that decade, a decade where the Raiders made 5 AFC Championship Games and won a Super Bowl, Stabler ranked #3 in TDs (behind Tarkenton and Staubach), #1 in Y/A, #4 in passer rating (behind Staubach, Bob Griese and Bert Jones), and #1 in completion percentage. Please, don't tell me he didn't deserve a HOF spot. Maybe he wasn't as good as Staubach, Bradshaw, Griese and Tarkenton, but he absolutely needs to be in the Hall of Fame

Stabler's best season personally also happened to be the best season for the Raiders. After losing three straight AFC Championship Games in 1973, 1974 and 1975, the Raiders entered 1976 with a can't win the big one label. That year, the Raiders went 13-1 and then rolled through the playoffs. They ended the season 16-1, the second best record in teh Super Bowl era at the time. Stabler himself had a season that was basically unheard of in 1976.

In 1976, Stabler completed 66.7% of his passes (basically like if someone went 73% in 2015), with a TD% of 9.3 of his throws (2nd best all time behind Manning in '04), and a passer rating of 103.4. Having someone play the whole season and do that in the 70's was like what Marino did in 1984.

At his best he was that good. At his best he was also that infamous. Yet despite the hard partying, the great play, he was always a bit under the radar. He was not as notable a womanizer as Joe Namath, and not as notable a player as Staubach; but he was the closest anyone came to doing both at the same time. Kenny Stabler had the memorable games, the memorable personality, and the great performance. Can we get this guy in teh Hall of Fame please!

It is amazing that for a franchise with the amount of success as the Raiders, they've never had a QB make it to the Hall of Fame. Stabler should be the first, and he likely is the best QB the franchise has ever had. He was a Raider for life, a guy that Al Davis swore by; that his more talented, lettered teammates revered. Ken Stabler lived a good life, and I wish he rest in peace; or rest in action, living life and having fun like he always had.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Top-20 QBs: #17 - Jim Kelly

#17 - Jim Kelly

Jim Kelly had a weird career, he's remembered for being innovative, the QB of the NFL's second modern offense. In a way, all current offenses are combinations of the West Coast Offense, and the no-huddle. Things have been molded and adapted, but the no-huddle influence really stemmed from Kelly and the Bills. Jim Kelly, though, is also remembered for losing, but not in a bad way. No, there is no QB who's career is remembered more fondly for failing. In that way, Jim Kelly has led a blessed life. He's the one QB who was so bad at winning the Super Bowl, people realized just how good you have to be to get there.

We must remember that despite their 'high flying' reputation, the Bills were the tallest midget, or the thinnest kid at fat camp. The NFL in the early-90's was at a new offensive valley. The 80's were a rebellion to the dead-ball era of the 70's, and the 90's was defense getting its revenge. The Bills were the best offense, but that was still a team that ran the ball more than half the time. Jim Kelly never threw for 4,000 yards. He never threw the ball 500 times in a season. Part of this was due to him missing 1-3 games in many seasons, but his numbers look more like a 'game manager' in the 2000s, but that goes to the era he played in.

We don't mentally think that the early 90's need to be looked at a little more closely when judging passing statistics, but they must. Kelly's career 60.1% completion percentage, his four year stretch with an 89.6 passer rating, these are impressive numbers. Kelly played in Buffalo, let's remember as well. Compared to his peers, Kelly was a consistent 10-30% better than the average QB, which in the NFL was a lot.

Jim Kelly got the luxury of having Andre Reed, but it was definitely more the other way around in retrospect. He also took control of an offense with a mediocre offensive line, that played in Buffalo, and made it something special. The Bills was 13, 13, 11 and 12 games in his prime, and for his career, Jim Kelly was 101-59, basically averaging 10 wins a year for a franchise that has gotten to 10 wins just twice since he left. We must also remember that Jim Kelly is missing a good 3-4 years of his career due to his playing in the USFL first.

Jim Kelly was one of the people that legitimized the USFL, along with Steve Young, and while Young outclassed him, Young also had the better versions of everything Kelly did. Young had the best WR of all time, instead of a guy who probably doesn't deserve he Hall of Fame nod he got. Young had the best offensive system, instead of the second best. Steve Young was better, but circumstance and situation elevated him and supressed Kelly.

What Jim Kelly also did was throw deep, going against the natural trend of the league to embrace the West Coast Offense and go shorter and shorter. Kelly did not rely on YAC, he relied on his own brilliant right arm, and the players around him. Of course, he never did win a Super Bowl though.

Again, Kelly, and the Buffalo Bills in general, are the one team to largely escape criticism for not winning a Super Bowl. That's what happens when you do something no one else has - get to four in a row. Jim Kelly probably should have won that first one. Obviously, if Scott Norwood hits a field goal he does. Is his legacy any worse because his kicker missed a kick? No, as it should be. He's just lucky to be the one guy where that is the case.

Jim Kelly was a great QB who ran an innovative offense, but more than that, he's a symbol and a reminder to the more analytically-inclined NFL fans. He's a reminder that the early-90's shared far more similarities to the 1970's than it does the 2000s, and he's also a reminder that there is hope that a QB can be judged not by the hardware on his fingers, but the brilliance of the footballs that spun out of them.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

2015 NFL Playoffs: Divisional Round Review

Player of the Week - Larry Fitzgerald (WR, ARZ)

Larry Fitzgerald got a lot of buzz this year for his great comeback season, but even I was surprised he had 108 catches! Anyway, Fitzy continued that rennaissance in this game with a vintage performance. He was everywhere making diving catches, making weaving runs after the catch, scoring the winner on a shovel pass. On a day when the rest of the offense didn't play all that well, Fitzgerald was a monster.

Runner-Up - Luke Kuechly (LB, CAR)

Kuechly was the best player on the field in that game. His pick-six set the early tone; his coverage was scary, including breaking up passes 20-yards downfield. He's gotten buzz recently about winning another Defensive Player of the Year, and his play in this game showed why.

Goat of the Week - Andy Reid (Coach, KC)

To be honest, there was no real goat player this week. Overall, the weekend was well played football, and credit Seattle for making what started out as an epic blowout into a competitive game. I'll give it to Andy Reid because of the lethargic drive his Chiefs had to make it 27-20, but even then he had an undermanned team competitive in New England. 

Runner-Up - The Broncos WR's Hands

In a weird way, some of the worst performances came by the winning teams. The Broncos could have won that game a lot more easily, and made their QB look much better, if their receivers just caught the ball. The Broncos actually have done that a lot in Manning games this year. They made some big catches late, but man were they playing with stone hands late.

Surprise of the Week - The Steelers Offense sans Brown

All credit to the Steelers for playing a really inspired game. It is rare to actually say that about the Steelers playoff losses over the years in the Ben era, but without Brown and DeAngelo, the Steelers offense had one of the best days against Denver all year. They didn't score because of awful field position and a fumble, but Roethlisberger looked good, and Martavis Bryant is a monster. Even the o-line played better than expected. If only the Steelers could draft cornerbacks the way they draft WRs.

Runner-Up: The Packers Defense

Again, it was a weird week where the losing teams in a few of the games came out looking better, in a relative to expectations sense, than the winner, and the Packers defense definitely seemed to win the matchups against the Cardinals offense. The corners played great on the speedy guys, basically taking John Brown out of the game completely. The d-line was great all day. If only they could cover Larry Fitzgerald.

Disappointment of the Week - The Chiefs Defense

I get that Justin Houston played just 8 snaps, in an injury that ended up being far more impactful than Maclin's, but where was the rest of the defense. The secondary played reasonably well, but they dropped 2-3 interceptions. The linebackers missed countless tackles. The interior rush guys in Haye and Poe were silent. The Chiefs defense was their strength, but it went missing on Saturday.

Runner-Up: The Broncos Defense

The Broncos defense was not bad. No, they basically got Denver the win with the fumble, but so high are the expectations of the Broncos defense that it was surprising they didn't do even better. They seemed so spooked by Antonio Brown eating Chris Harris in Week 15 that they played way too much zone, which apparently they can't play well. The Steelers receivers should never have been that open. Also, Von Miller was oddly silent.

Team Performance of the Week - The Panthers Defensive Line

The Panthers as a whole had the most dominant first half I've seen by a team in a good decade in the playoffs, and the best part was their d-line. Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei were unbloackable inside, swallowing up Marshawn Lynch. The rotation of DEs were all great. Both interceptions were due to fast pressure. Even the plays the Seahawks did make needed Wilson to escape quick pressure. Just a dominant performance by a forgettenly really damn good defense.

Runner-Up: The Broncos Special Teams

It has been very odd all season to watch Denver play with a bad offense and great defense - it was even weirder to see a Manning-QBed team win because of dominant special teams. From the returns, to the repeated great punt coverage punning the Steelers back, to McManus going 5-5 in windy conditions, that was a dominant performance.

Team Lay-Down of the Week - The Cardinals Offense for 45 minutes

The Cardinals had the best offense in the NFL this season. They have the best passing attack, and a good running game. That offense was silent for three quarters. They had 70 yards total in the first half. Carson Palmer was wild and inaccurate, repeatedly throwing high. Luckily for them they had a 4th quarter, but it was just jarring to see that played so much of the season in rhythm look so lost against an average defense.

Runner-Up: The Broncos Corners

I feel like I've covered a lot of this ground, but the Broncos should have been able to do a better job against Bryant. Wheaten, DHB and Sammie Coates. They have to step up if the Broncos are to have any shot next week.

Storyline that will be Beaten Into the Ground over the next week - Brady / Manning pt. XVII

In a way, it is nice that we get one of these after Manning had to miss the regular season game, but having mentally checked out of Peyton Manning being an active QB, this is a very unwelcome surprise. The real matchup is Tom Brady and his gang of healthy receivers against the best defense in the NFL, but no, let's just focus on Manning vs. Brady for 144 hours.

Storyline that should be Beaten Into the Ground over the next week - The NFC in the Late-Window can give us Another Classic

Here are the last four times the NFC had the 2nd Title Game, the 6:40 PM one:

2007: Giants beat Packers 23-20 (OT)
2009: Saints beat Vikings 31-28 (OT)
2011: Giants beat 49ers 20-17 (OT)
2013: Seahawks beat 49ers 23-17

Those were four classic games, three of which were OT thrillers, one of which was as good as the others, ending with an interception in the end zone. One was one of teh best played and most iconic games of the 21st Century (Giants @ Packers). You can write epic books about these games. Let's hope the run contnues, and on paper it should. These have been the two best teams in the NFL all year long. They match up well against each other. Carolina is a really fun place to watch a game right now. The Cardinals are always a fun watch. We've had four classics in a row, why stop now?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Year Beginning Trip of 2016, Pt. 4 - Cape Town; The Greenery Within

I got up a little earlier today, wanting to get out to breakfast early. It was a Friday, I expected things to a be a little more crowded than it was yesterday; some of this is from experience. When I came to Cape Town three years ago I also left on a Saturday, that time Saturday morning. Friday was packed everywhere, and I expected more of the same. I got more of the same. I wanted to go to Vovo Telo again, but all the outdoor tables were full – I don’t really see the point of eating indoors in Cape Town. Instead, I walked over the side of the Waterfront that had a nicer, clearer view of table mountain, and ate at OYO restaurant, which was the hotel restaurant of the Albert Hall. There the Continental Buffet was 220 rand, and the Continental Buffet plus one breakfast entrĂ©e item was 240, so I obviously went with the latter. The buffet included smoked salmon and oysters(!), so I loaded up on those, awaited my eggs, and basked in the view and the wind.

I only had one ‘to-do’ on my list for today, which was a trip to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, probably the most notable tourist attraction in the Western Cape that I missed out on last time. I had penciled that in for the afternoon, so I had, again, a few hours to kill. I learned quickly during this trip that going back to a place, especially just three years later, has its negatives. I decided to venture inside the one area of the Waterfront that was not there two years ago, the large warehouse-style African Craft Market, called the Water-Shed – I guess so called because it was a shed and it was on the water.

It is huge, with about 50 different stalls selling all kinds of stuff, from carved wood and metal and stone and ostrich eggs, to various textile-based stuff, to paintings, to jewelry, to even some food and drinks. It is an amazing site, especially with everything seeing pretty high quality. I bought a few little trinkets to be gifts for various people, but spend way too much time just walking around soaking it all in.

Following my time gallivanting around the craft market, it was basically already lunch time. I first stopped for a Milk & Honey, and then made my way up the Victoria Wharf Mall outside area to City Grill, the place I went to last time – the place that gave me Campari on the house for some reason. I kind of decided to go there on a whim, but it was definitely a well made choice.

I decided to stay a bit light during lunch, but still did something I never, ever do; I ordered wine. And not only wine, but a whole bottle. Needless to say I didn’t finish the bottle, but it was reasonably priced (equated to about three glasses). I sat there, took in the amazing view, and actually rested on the wine for a bit. For my only main, I got the Warthog Skewer with a delicious mushroom and potatoe sauce. The food was great, the sightlines were better, and I was glad to be going back to The City Grill.

Following lunch I finally ventured away from the Waterfront, hitting the one main tourist attraction I missed the last time, going to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Situated on the other side of the Lion’s Head and Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch is about 20 minutes from the City Center – part of the reason I didn’t get to go last time. The entrance is a bit plain, but once you get past the gate and start waking in the expansiv park, you realize that even the other side of the mountain, when you can no longer see the distinctive fat-top of Table Mountain, the views in South Africa are spectacular:

The Gardens are huge. Ther is a map that can be used, but the usefulness is liited by the lack of corresponding signs in the park. In reality, Kirstenbosch is a place that is better experienced by just wandering around and getting lost. Other than the distinctive ‘Canopy Walk’ and ‘Enchanted Gardens’, with overhanging trees covering the pathways, the rest of the Gardens is just a meandering walk across and through large fields and all the while the mountains hang over you with a commanding presence. This was a place my Mom would lose a whole day just soaking it all in/ Even as someone with a very light green thumb, I enoyed each view and photo opportunity. Kirstenbosch was a wonderful experience, well deserving of its #2 ranking for attractions in Cape Town.

Following my time in Kirstenbosch, I went into town and milled around the Long Street area, just passing time until the start of the sun-set when I wanted to head back to the Waterfront. Long Street was as fun as ever, but soon enough it was nearing six o clock, and I wanted to head to my ‘home’ in Cape Town.

The V&A Waterfront is a bit commercial, but it is also that for a reason, but then n the weekends you see more locals than anything crowding the place, again for a reason. The views are stunning, the restaurants and bars are great, mostly all have outdoor seating. It is the real life-blood of Cape Town, and I wanted to experience all of it. I started with a drink (or two) at De Kamp, a Beligan bar on the waterfront over at the ‘Abert’ end, the ore high-end area. The views here were amazing, with a great prespective of the sun slowly setting over signal hill, and the wonderful colors that reflected onto Table Mountain.

I then waded from De Kamp, and milled around the Waterfront area while my Table and KaRiBu (the restaurant right next to City Grill) was getting my table ready. I had asked for a table right on the edge outside that would give the best view of the end of daylight ending and nighttime rising. They came through and the view was, again, spectacular. Cape Town is a Top-10 site in the world even if there was nothing else to do but stare mouth agape at the wonder around you.

My dinner setting gave me the inspiration to get another bottle of wine, this time a Pinotage, a South African favorite, and sip that under the lights. The manager of the restaurant was surprised I asked to sit outside, and even more surprised when I asked him not to put the heater on – I told him that the temperature straggling 60-75 degrees is about as perfect as it gets. The food was about as good, first a Biltong plate with cured Biltong pieces, and then a main of Zebra, which was fantastic. I did not have Zebra the last time I came to Cape Town, and it was about as good as I could have imagined, a bit softer than Beef more of a lamb taste. I wrapped up dinner around 10:00, wanting to go to a few different spots before heading home.

The first was Quay Four Tavern, which by this time had transitioned over to being a bar. They have a ton of outdoor seating which is over the water, and while there Is no view of Table Mountain, in the dark the view of the bay is better. Next I went back to good ol Mitchell’s Pub and threw down a few more beers and enjoyed my time with the locals. Cape Town is a great place, and even if I restricted myself largely to the Waterfront area this time – at least more than I did last time – I did not feel like I missed out. Cape Town’s Waterfront is pretty perfect.

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.