Sunday, October 22, 2006

NFL Thoughts, Weeks 2-6

Why in the world did the Seahawks not play Deion Branch? They said he had to learn the plays, but a) he had a week, and b) how the hell hard could it be? Even if he didn't learn them "in time," why not just throw him in there and let him wing it?

Twice, with the Panthers and Buccaneers, I violated one of my own cardinal betting rules this week: never let one game dispel all of the months of analysis you've built up beforehand. I just couldn't help it, though, and I picked against them, because they really looked that bad.

As for the Panthers report, the entire play hinged on one play. Comfortably up 7 with time running out, I watched them commit the single worst play of my entire life by any team. Chris Gamble fielded a punt at midfield and tried to do a cross-field lateral pass with it, resulting in a fumble/scramble/mess and the Vikings with the football at the Panther 20. Judging by John Fox's lackof reaction, I can only assume the play was his idea. The announcers called it "bone-headed," which doesn't even begin to describe it; it was suicidal insanity. It was such an unspeakably ill-advised blunder that the Vikings were too shocked to even take advantage of it immediately. But it was all downhill from there, because Minnesota quickly tied it on a trick play of their own and then won it in overtime. Lost in the wreckage was a brilliant 3-sack, 1FG-block masterpiece by Julius Peppers and a breakout performance from DeAngeloWilliams--remember the name. That punting-lateral debacle was the single best evidence I've ever seen for allowing owners to make certain plays fineable offenses--it was that criminally reckless.

My pick for player of the week is Eli Manning, who passed for 370+ yards while leading his team back from the dead to pull out a huge victory in Philly. He and brother Peyton have so far played with an eerily Tomax/Xamot level of synchronized excellence.

And now for some analysis: I hate the Rams. I cannot ever, EVER pick them correctly. From here on out, St. Louis has no team. The Rams are dead to me.

Anyone want to bet on the over/under for how much weight Jerome Bettis puts onover the season? I've got it at 30 lbs. Seriously though, along with formerYankee Tino Martinez in the "Baseball Tonight" booth, he gets my vote for most useless, uncomfortable-looking ex-jock commentator.

Another excruciating Carolina game, as they continue their race to the bottom with Tampa Bay. I was going to make a joke about them being nearly beaten by a frail, wheezing Chris Simms, but now I see he's spleen-less, so I'll hold off. The Panthers actually soundly outplayed the Bucs but almost literally fumbledthe game away for the second week in a row. Fortunately, kicker John Kasay was money. And for instant offense, just add Steve Smith--an all-around solid return from our 5'-9" messiah. Besides the obviously horrible fumbling, I had only a minor complaint: I have no idea why they didn't give the ball more to DeAngelo Williams. Instead, they stubbornly insist on running up the middle with DeShaun Foster--wrong"De"-prefix, guys! Interestingly, it was around this time last year when I wondered why they didn't give the ball more to Foster rather than running up the middle with Stephen Davis. I guess the circle of life is complete.

Even though they're a hated division rival, I find the Bucs' plight kinda sad. Candidly, I would at least like their defense to perform better, and that's because the knock on them going into their season was their collective old age. Now that I'm pushing 30 myself, I was hoping to use them as evidence that you can still perform at your physical peak after the big three-oh. Guess I'll have to continue to fall back on the Yankees as proof.

Offensive player of the week has to be John Kasay. Four field goals, two of them over 50, and a last-second make to win the game. Money. Special recognition also to Bengals wideouts TJ Houshmenzadah and Chris Henry (he of the four offseason arrests), who made some gutsy game-changing receptions to shut up those loathsome towel-waving morons in Pittsburgh.

Defensive player of the week would be Antoine Winfield...I guess. I didn't see any big standouts, and he didn't even WIN his game. But ten tackles and an interception deserves some love. There have been some key comebacks in the secondary this year, with Ken Hamlin and Donavan Darius playing outstanding.

With 11, 10, and 7 points on the Vikings, Chargers, and the inexplicably putrid Dolphins, I was out of my football pool early. I was feeling pretty bummed about it until I saw Dick Enberg and Randy Cross would be announcing the late game. Enberg, CBS's eternally unprepared utility commentator (there should be some kind of law that announcers who cover Wimbledon are NOT allowed to do the NFL too), is always good for some unintentional comedy. The following is an actual sample of some his expert analysis:

Dick: The tackle was made by...let's see, I don't even see his number on the roster list...oh here it is, Daryl Smith...out of...Georgia Tech. By the way, it says here the coaches love this kid, he's a third-year linebacker with a reputation for hitting hard.

Even more ridiculous is the fact that while Enberg is shuffling through his papers, the letters "D. Smith" on the back of his jersey are in plain sight to the audience at home. If Enberg had just waited a second for the cameraman to zoom in, he would have spared himself some embarrassment. Cross, meanwhile, was quite obviously drunk. In the opening shot of the pair, he was even comically fumbling around with his headset--eventually letting it rest crooked--before slurring his way through the afternoon with a series of mismatched clich├ęs.

Prototypical ugly Panthers win this week--the defense kept them in it long enough to steal one in the end. Sean Payton made an awful decision to challenge an obvious down-by-contact call and cost the Saints a critical timeout late; it was nice to see another team self-destruct for a change. I'm beginning to think that DeAngelo Williams must have gotten caught inadvertently hitting on John Fox's daughter or something, because they stubbornly refuse to give him the ball even though he averages 7 yards a carry.

News Item of the Week: The obvious choice would be the Terrell Owens suicide-that-wasn't. And indeed it was tremendous, especially for me. This is because anytime a sports-related news event breaks that has a psychological slant, I get the pleasure of watching my psychologist wife bristle at commentators flippantly and incorrectly tossing around words like "bipolar" that they have no business using. (Incidentally, this also happens on TV shows when characters do things like go to therapy, because apparently (as they do with the Army) Hollywood gets it insultingly wrong for those who are involved with it in real life.) But anyway, I prefer to nominate Joey Porter's dogs, who got loose from his property (ranch? compound?) and proceeded to kill a small horse. This apparently is only a misdemeanor offense, so Porter will suit up this weekend (see below).

I hate injuries. Even on teams I despise, I would always prefer franchises to have all their personnel, especially their playmakers. This inclination doesn't just apply to sports, by the way. As a child, I always hated comic books, episodes of "Knight Rider," etc., when the plot line revolved around the hero not in some way being up to full strength. Anytime Hannibal was unavailable for the A-Team, or Spiderman's web-shooters didn't work for whatever reason, I would angrily stop watching/reading. I suppose the point was for the creators to illustrate how their protagonists were heroic in other ways besides chance possession of superior brawn and gadgetry, but I would simply prefer to see evil crushed by unironic Darwinian supremacy.

In honor of this philosophy, I've decided to keep a running All-Injury/Suspension Team. It's only Week 4 and we've already lost some great players to season-threatening broken bones and drug busts. Right now, I'll go with a two-TE set and line up my defense in a 3-4, but that might change--we're one Brian Simmons torn-ACL away from having an all-Bengals linebacker corps. I also need a fullback--ball's in your court, LorenzoNeal!

All Injury/Suspension Team:
QB: Trent Green (backup: Chris Simms)
RB: Shaun Alexander
FB: ????
WR: Jerry Porter
WR: Keenan McCardell
TE: Vernon Davis
TE: Erron Kinney
OL: LeCharles Bentley
OL: Travelle Wharton
OL: Larry Allen
OL: Justin Hartwig

DL: Reggie Hayward
DL: Corey Simon
DL: Jevon Kearse
LB: Steve Foley
LB: Odell Thurman
LB: David Pollack
LB: Dan Morgan
CB: Jordan Babineaux
CB: Lito Sheppard
S: Bob Sanders
S: Terrence Kiehl (note: the NFL Injury Report lists "personal reasons" for why he's out--clearly they don't have a "busted for selling prescription cough syrup to 8th graders" default setting yet)

Defensive Player of the Week: Bart Scott. Eleven tackles and a key interception for Ray Lewis II. Even more than McNair, he was the main reason Baltimore ruined my betting day by beating the Chargers, who managed to lose after LEADING FOR 59 MINUTES AND THIRTY SECONDS AND HAD A CHANCE TO GET ME A VICTORY BY VIRTUE OF THE FACT THAT I WAS THE ONLY ONE TO PICK THEM AFTER THE RAVENS NEEDED A 52-YARD FIELD GOAL WITH NO TIME LEFT TO BEAT CLEVELAND--CLEVELAND!--LAST WEEK!!!!

Offensive Player of the Week: Anquan Boldwin. Yes, he only finished with 4 catches and 42 yards, but he had this award locked up on Wednesday for stealing the entire showon "Inside the NFL." As the centerpiece of the highlights clip from the Cardinals-Rams game, Boldwin cut a marvelously tragic hero, howling in agony as Kurt Warner disastrously gave the game away with one unforced fumble afteranother. Boldwin's mournful wails of "Nooooo! Noooo!" on not one, not two, but THREE Warner turnovers were such genuine, visceral cries of helpless horror and despair that they immediately evoked the terrible twin images from my own recent past: the 2001 World Series and the 2004 ALCS. Most of us probably envision ourselves as Tarantino-ian underdogs valiantly competing against a world of odds, and when the circumstances inevitably "unjustly" turn against us, we like to think that we then coolly survey the wreckage of our ironic lives with detached witticisms and one-liners. The truth is, though, when it really matters, and when it really hurts, all we're good for are screams of "Nooooo!"

Congratulations to my father, who has clinched his second win of the pool season regardless of Monday night's outcome. The decisive contest was the Giants-Redskins, in which Pop was the only one who understood that a disastrous showing in the previous game, a near team mutiny, and a horrid secondary (and D-Line, and, come to think of it, linebacker corps) against a squad coming off an impressive defeat of the mighty Jaguars all adds up to an easy victory--duh!

The Panthers won, but it was pretty taxing. Good defense, a lot of punts, and a boatload of 3-yard runs by DeShaun Foster lulled the Browns to sleep. Commentator Rich Gannon's take: "The Panthers have had difficulty converting their third downs this year, but a lot of that is due to the fact that they haven't been good on first and second down either." Amen, Dick.

My nominations for Overused Word and Overused Phrase of 2006:

Overused Word: "Manage," as in: "The Steelers don't need Ben Roethlisberger to do anything spectacular; if he can just manage the game and not turn the ball over..." This wasn't so bad when it was first used only for Big Ben during his rookie season two years ago; actually, it was a fairly apposite appraisal. Unfortunately, too many people must have thought that, and its usage spread like a virus. Now it's applied to pretty much any quarterback in football except for Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, even insituations where it's decidedly NOT the case. For instance, Phillip Rivers does NOT need to just "manage the game" for the Chargers, even though Maddon and Michaels said it twice last night in the first half alone. Marty S. disproved that notion last week when Rivers pretty much quit throwing in the second half and they lost.

Overused Phrase: "Skill Set," as in (this is an actual quote's Don Banks): "The Falcons have finally found the right way to use Michael Vick's unique skill set." This is one of those weird MBA-ese terms that somehow crossed-over into sports. I'm still trying to figure out who's the Deep Throat leaking this pretentious-sounding garbage (MichaelLewis?), and I really want to plug it. It's got to be the same guy (MalcolmGladwell?) who's responsible for all these sportscasters suddenly babbling about "performance metrics," "added value," "improving the on-the-field product," and "speaks to." Anyway, back to skill set. How about just saying "Michael Vick's unique skills," PERIOD. The whole "set" thing is a completely unnecessary add-on, a verbal earmark, the kind of thing that led to an entire George Carlin comedy routine about airplane announcers tagging on extra words to make things seem more important than they really are (e.g., emergency "situation," boarding "process"). Oh well.

My offensive player of the week is Donovan McNabb. Two touchdowns, nopicks, and 350 yards thrown to a receiver corps made up mainly of spare parts. Who needs Donte Stallworth?

Defensive Player of the Week: The Eagles make it a clean sweep with Lito Sheppard. Two picks, one for a 102-yard touchdown, and seven passes deflected. The award could also go to teammates Darwin Walker (3 sacks), Darren Howard (1.5 sacks), and/or Trent Cole (9.5 havocs wreaked). Who needs Jevon Kearse?

Congratulations to the city of Detroit, which ruined my Yankees, ruined me personally by beating the Bills for their first win of the season (I had a bunch on Buffalo), and then--as an added bonus--got to watch Joey Harrington play in the late game for the Dolphins and look just as awful as he did last year for the Lions. I can just imagine Matt Millen in his office, lighting a cigar and chuckling to himself going, "He's your problem now, Saban...sucker!" Can it possibly get any better for Motown? Arguably it will in a few weeks, because I believe the Pistons will actually be better without an over-the-hill Ben Wallace and were right for not matching the Bulls' ludicrous 4-year, $60-million contract for him. (I don't care how iconic he is or how much of a beast he is on defense, we're talking about a 33-year-old who averages 7 points a game!

And as long as I'm not writing directly about the NFL, I need to acknowledge that I picked a TERRIBLE time to become a Miami Hurricanes fan. Last year I had gotten sick of cheering for Notre Dame; it was becoming increasingly harder to defend their artificially high, overwhelmingly slanted BCS rankings, plus I wanted to go with a placeholder ACC team until Duke eventually explodes into the football powerhouse we all know it's destined to become. So I officially switched my sponsorship to The U., based mostly on fond, mid-80s childhood memories of a coked-up Michael Irvin and Co. dressed in Miami Vice-era pastels, brazenly yanking the curtain off the entire sanctimonious charade that is collegiate athletics and making it clear the 'Canes were there to play football, period. And now look at them! The team is horrific, they're losing recruits left and right, many have amassed an arrest record that would make Irvin himself blush, and now half of them are on suspension after an ugly brawl, setting up the very real likelihood of a loss this weekend to...Duke. Well, at least no one can accuse me of jumping on the bandwagon.

That's the bad news. The good news? Woo-hoo! What a win in Baltimore! Believe me, after watching every bland Panthers snap so far this season, only a fan with the blind faith of a jihadist would have picked them against the Ravens. So I had 3 on Baltimore (and felt like a homer even for THAT), and I couldn't be happier to admit how wrong I was. Offensively: roll-outs, draws, cool little reverse screens; the play-calling was--dare I say it?--dynamic! Drew Carter emerged as a legitimate 3rd threat (highlight of the game: after yet another huge Carter catch, he nonchalantly trotted back to the huddle and gave an openly dumfounded Keyshaun Johnson a look like, "What? What are you looking at me like that for? I'm Drew Carter, I've done this before."). I will even give DeShaun Foster some credit (although he did fumble). Of course Steve Smith was effervescent. But really, it was the O-Line, still without Justin Hartwig (and presumably--now that their former dealer is in the clink--without steroids), who were the heroes of the game. The vaunted Ravens defense only sacked Jake Delhomme once, he usually had plenty of time to spot receivers, they converted over half their third downs, they racked up a whopping 400-something yards in total offense...very, very impressive.

After such an inspiring win, I was hoping to revel while watching a great late game. Unfortunately, my only option was the Dolphins-Jets, which, from a viewer standpoint, really only had a car-crash/house-on-fire disaster sort of appeal. However, the game did allow me to reflect on one oddity: did you knowthere are two Renaldo Hills? One plays corner for the Titans (although he spells it "Reynaldo"), and the other plays safety for the Dolphins. What are the odds of two Re(y)naldo Hills, both in the AFC, both in the secondary? Weird.

Offensively, I give the collective weekly award to my Panthers' O-Line for reasons cited earlier. The honorable mention goes to Travis Henry of the Titans for getting 175 rushing yards and his team off the schneid (incidentally, I was thinking of calling theRedskins the "Redschizophreniacs" for their erratic play. But not after last week; now I just think they're simply bad).

Defensively, James Hall of the Lions racked up 3.5 sacks and was in J.P. Losman's face all day--much as it pains me, I've got to hand the award to a Detroitian.

And since I'm on fall break and have nothing better to do than think about football, the Cardinals are well on their way to sewing up the end-of-the-year award for Best Freakouts. First was Anquan Boldin's scorched howls of torture a few weeks ago on Inside the NFL, then last night Dennis Green threw a surreal temper tantrum during his press conference--try to check it out if you haven't seen it, it's tremendous. Screaming over and over to no one in particular, "The Bears arewhat we thought they were!" and then muttering repeatedly something in coherent about "game 3" of the preseason, Green got caught on a weird Turret's-style speech loop. It was eerily like Leo DiCaprio playing Howard Hughes in "The Aviator."

I just hope the Cardinals can turn things around before poor Dennis ends up barricading himself in an LA hotel, storing and cataloging jars of his own urine.

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