Monday, October 30, 2006

NFL Thoughts, Week 8

WEEK 8

In the wake of my abysmal ability to correctly predict NFL games, I’d like to accept full responsibility by blaming my teachers. In fact, I’m quite at home blaming them for every single one of my shortcomings. And you can too! Here’s how: regardless of our educational backgrounds, haven’t we long been ingrained with the belief that “it doesn’t matter which side you pick, as long as you present an effective argument”? We’ve all been told this, especially when it came to answering essay questions. Under this dystopian system, students can actually write an entire term paper about how the Civil War had absolutely nothing to do with slavery and get a perfect score. Unfortunately, placing a premium on cogency has proven woefully inadequate in preparing us for football and the real world, where the opposite is true and the bottom line is everything.

Just look at this past week. I spent plenty of time analyzing the Eagles-Jaguars and concluded the Eagles would win based on a number of logical premises. The Jags were missing three Pro Bowlers on defense (Marcus Stroud, Reggie Hayward, Mike Petersen), were starting their backup quarterback, were on the road, were coming off a shellacking by Houston, and were facing a team that could easily be 7-0, save for two 4th quarter collapses and a 62-yard FG. Had someone asked me to write an essay on why the Eagles would win, I probably would have gotten an “A” (depending on my thesis statement and my works cited page). As it happens, the Jaguars not only won, they embarrassed the Eagles, and I get a zero. This season has made so little sense that when teams like the Jets and Saints played on Sunday like they were originally supposed to, it’s shocking all over again.

I know you’re expecting me to now start crying about the Panthers game last night, but…that’s EXACTLY what I’m going to do. The Panthers blew coverage assignments, dropped passes, dropped kicks and punts, dropped out of contention, and basically dropped a steaming, fetid TURD all over BoA Stadium last night. And that gigantic flushing sound you hear are playoff expectations going right down the toilet throughout North Carolina. It’s really impossible to overstate how disgustingly embarrassing that performance was.

You know what’s really frustrating about this whole thing? Everyone was so fixated on the Parcells/Jerry Jones/Drew Bledsoe controversy, there was almost an inertial aspect of it to overcome. So when it became obvious that the real storyline of the game would not be the Cowboys’ demise, but instead it would be the Panthers’ spectacular choke-job, no one had any prefabricated commentary prepared. Even after the Cowboys took the lead, Maddon and Michaels were still talking about how “out of it” Parcells looked.

By the way, I stand in awe of Duane Charles Parcells. I’m now convinced he pulled the Tony Romo switch at halftime last week and let him flounder on national television specifically to lull Panthers Nation to sleep. And I fell for it all the way. After last week’s clumsy mess against the Giants, I was positively salivating at the prospect of Dallas taking their circus over here—how could you not? But it’s hard for me to be too upset with Tuna. Growing up a Giants fan, he was personally responsible for one of the happiest moments of my life (Super Bowl XXI win, snow day the next day—what more could a 4th grader ask for?). All I can do is offer a firm handshake; I know when I’m beaten.

On a more sober note, the Panthers gave up 270 yards to a backup quarterback, surrendered 28 4th-quarter points, got shut out over three quarters, and destroyed two couch pillows in anger (okay, that last one was actually me). It’s time to officially lower my standards for this team. The defensive line has two bona fide duds (Komeaotu and Jenkins); the linebackers pulled a Chicago Cubs-Woods/Prior routine and stupidly bet everything on fragile Dan Morgan; and Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble—so magnificent last year—have come crashing back down to Planet Reality. Meanwhile, the offense was never particularly special to begin with. Face it, last year’s honeymoon is over, and I’m stuck in yet another masochistic, emotionally-abusive relationship with a disappointing sports team. But I will go down with this ship. I won’t put my arms up and surrender. They’ll be no white flag above my door. I’m in love, and always will be…

Defensive Player of the Week: Shawne Merriman. 3 sacks, no positive drug tests (one less than last week).

Offensive Player of the Week: Michael Vick, the NFL’s Human Hedge Fund. High-risk, high-reward, ride the bullish Vick market as long as you can. Enjoy the obligatory two weeks’ worth of USA Today articles detailing how he’s made all these "adjustments," then sell high before the bubble inevitably bursts. (Note: I could also have selected Peyton Manning as the PotW and simply cut-and-pasted last week’s description of his performance here. The man is incredible.)

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Charlotte Bobcats 2006-2007 Team Preview

I should probably begin this analysis with a polemic on why I am qualified to assess our orange-clad Quadrupeds of Destiny. Well, I can sum it up with two words, four numbers, and one hyphen: January 11th – February 1st. This refers to that grizzly stretch last season when the Bobcats lost a staggering thirteen games in a row, "culminating" with a 10-point loss to Atlanta, for god’s sake. I watched every last painful minute of this stretch—every missed shot, every inadvertent ball hitting an un-alert Matt Carroll in the face, every Bernie Bickerstaff head-slap of frustration, every uncomfortable moment of commentator Matt Devlin attempting to talk “jive”—all of it. One of the games I actually taped. Need I say more? I love this team on a Glenn Close/Fatal Attraction level.

Even more crazy is the fact that I’m actually eager and thankful to cheer for this team. How is that possible, you ask? Simple: I used to be a Knicks fan. Growing up in the suburban NYC-area, I cut my teeth on the grittiness of Xavier, Patrick, and Starks, only to watch in disillusioned shame as the Knicks matched, overtook, and have now lapped their MSG-roommates the Rangers in horrific free-agent overpayments. Thus when I relocated to quaint little North Carolina a few years ago, it was time to start afresh with a new home, a new career, and a new NBA (and NFL) team. Granted, the Knicks and football Giants pushed me out as much as the Bobcats and Panthers pulled me in.

Even when I move back to New York next year, I’m staying true to the Bobcats and Panthers. I’m pretty sure my time here in North Carolina will mark the greatest epoch of my lifetime: I got married, enjoyed the carefree times of grad school, and basically took a nice long swim in Lake Me. So I’ll be commemorating my blissful period in this land of lush foliage via everlasting love of its sports franchises…assuming Bob Johnson doesn’t pull the plug, sell the team, and they end up being, like, the Las Vegas Aces or something. Christ, what then for me, back to the Knicks!? Let’s talk about this team before I slit my wrists...

FRONTCOURT
Last year, rebounding killed us. We ranked 24th in the league in rebounds/game, and we were particularly atrocious in defensive rebounds. The reasons for this aren’t exactly mysterious, considering Emeka Okafor (10.0 RPG) missed 56 games and goofy center Primoz Brezec (5.6 RPG) has the approximate upper-body strength of Napoleon Dynamite. If only Sean May and Brezec could conduct some kind of body-fat transplant, the two would even each other out nicely. Speaking of May, he’ll need to step up his 4.7 RPG somehow, and playing more than 23 games would be a good start. It got kind of annoying to see him sitting on the bench every night in dress-casual with a vaguely diagnosed “bad knee,” looking somewhat less than remorseful about not suiting up. Meanwhile, Gerald Wallace, all 6-7” of him, ended up playing a considerable amount of time at the 4 with the two NCAA golden boy champs sitting out. He did a pretty decent job (7.5 RPG) thanks to his athleticism and hustle, but obviously this is not his optimal spot. Melvin Ely also got plenty of run from the injuries and has a decent post-up game, but he tended to collect his third foul roughly midway through the first quarter, resulting in a pretty feeble 4.9 RPG. Ely is definitely not starter material at this time. Rookie Adam Morrison will hopefully see lots of time at the 3, but he’s not exactly known for his rebounding prowess. So the bottom line is, May and Okafor need to assert themselves on the boards (rather than the fast food line). Maybe they can work out a scheme where Morrison distracts opponent would-be rebounders with his mustache, or have Brevin Knight hop on Brezec’s shoulders—I don’t know, get creative with it…

All right enough about rebounding, because as putrid as it was, the shooting was even more foul. The ‘Cats were dead last in shooting percentage last year. A few of the bigs actually have some nice touch though. During his brief stay on the active roster, May displayed a pretty rainbow shot and some soft-touch banks--Brezec too. In fact, even though I like to tease him, Brezec (12.4 PPG) is all hustle, running around with his arms constantly up and his head on the swivel, looking comically similar to a 7th grader trying his hardest on a fundamentals drill at practice. And for whatever reason, there’s this spot about 12-feet off to the right side of the hoop where he literally does not miss (though it can be maddening to wait for his high-arcing shot to finally come back down and reenter the atmosphere). And Ely has the ability to back his way in for an easy turnaround layup. Assuming they stay healthy, the Forwards are big, solid, and youthful upfront.

I guess I should also mention 27-year-old rookie Walter Herrman, except—quite honestly—I have no f---in’ idea who he is. Apparently, he’s 6-9”and he put up 10.5 PPG last year, but this was in a Spanish league, and that’s like telling me you’ll give me 8 million Russian rubles; I have no idea what that’s worth. Coach Bickerstaff recently referred to his foot injury as “a good thing”—huh? Doesn’t sound like Ely’s backup job is in danger. The other “major” acquisition was getting-long-in-the-tooth Othella Harrington, who along with hulking Jake Voskuhl, should be good for mop-up minutes.

BACKCOURT
The main question here is how to configure everyone. Last year it started with dependable Brevin Knight on point and Raymond Felton subbing in for him. Then it flip-flopped. Then they were both out. Then Matt Carroll would randomly act like he’d just shot-gunned a six-pack of Red Bulls and either make or grab his own rebounds for 10 3’s in a row while running 5 windsprints at full speed around the perimeter. Coach Bickerstaff would shrewdly ride Carroll’s bender as long as he could and then sub in for him once he went into withdrawal. This year, I think Morrison’s play will dictate things—will he start or sub, and will he better at the 2 or 3? Depending on where Morrison ends up, Wallace will fill the gap. Knight and Felton at the 1-2 concurrently actually isn’t so bad, it just makes for a thin bench.

Part of the logjam has also been handled by thankfully saying goodbye to Kareem Rush, who basically ran around last year with the trigger permanently off “SAFE,” a threat to fire from anywhere on the court at any time. Rush was probably the single biggest reason our shooting percentage was so woeful. Felton, like Rush, would also occasionally get in his head that he’s Deadeye Dick last year. In fact, the worst thing in the world would be when he did hit a long range jumper early, because he tended to think it gave him carte blanche to fire at will for the next 5-6 possessions. But I really need to just show Felton some love—much as it pains me to respect a Tar Heel! Raymond got better and better as the season went along last year, and from February on he proved he could actually take games over. He’s got a kind of awkward, straight-up dribbling style, but he can flat-out fly up the court. Even though it probably doesn’t sound like it, I’m really excited about his accelerated progression along the learning curve.

The two primary backups, Bernard Robinson and Kevin Burleson, did well in emergency extended playing time last year with Knight missing 23 games. If nothing else, they provided some unintentional comedy by allowing us to see Coach Bickerstaff—who clearly would not have been playing them nearly as often otherwise—look increasingly exasperated. They’re also both jacked.

And finally…don’t forget the steals! Last year Wallace and Knight finished 1-2 in steals—what! Oh yeah, I said it, what! It’s a scrappy bunch, I just someone like Morrison doesn’t go too far and pull a Reggie Evans, if you catch my drift.

I honestly believe that 8th seed in the playoffs is not an unrealistic goal for these guys. Hey, we did take 26 last year and that was with substantial injuries. It’s also no secret that with the exception of the Central Division, the East isn’t particularly deep. Figure someone from the Atlantic will go (basically because someone has to), the Central could conceivably send everyone, and the Heat should be a shoo-in from the Southeast. That leaves us scrapping with the Magic and Wizards for the right to get swept in the first round…

Monday, October 23, 2006

NFL Thoughts, Week 7

WEEK 7

Depending on the outcome of the Monday Night game, this week’s winning score in my football pool will be either 48 or 51. The week before it was 65, and the week before that it was 104, meaning we as a group seem to be regressing in our predictive ability.

Then again, when the Chargers defense gives up 30 points to the Chiefs (led by a backup quarterback), when the Cardinals come within a field goal of beating the Bears one week and then get blown out by Oakland the next, when Jacksonville gets blasted by Houston, when Cincinnati’s rag-tag O-Line utterly neutralizes Carolina’s pass rush (more on that later), when Seattle gets thoroughly trounced by Minnesota (at home(!)), and when ruthless killer Snoop on The Wire is actually played by a GIRL, it’s kind of hard to be too down on yourself for not seeing any of this coming.

O Panthers, my Panthers…they lie fallen, cold and dead, after a soul-sucking defeat to the eminently beatable Bengals. There was a brilliant passage in Nick Hornby’s memoir, Fever Pitch, wherein he recalls a game involving his beloved Arsenal. In the game, Arsenal goes up 1-0 very early, then spends the rest of the time desperately trying to hold on and preserve the win. When the opposing team eventually ties it with about a minute left, Hornby, who’d been listening in agonized suspense to the whole thing with a transistor radio up to his ear, wrote that “it was like finally getting shot by a gun that had been aimed at my head for an hour.” That’s pretty much what went down at my house yesterday. When they finally lost it all, and with Erin trying to study upstairs, the only thing I can say for myself is that I was at least able to bury my head into my living room carpet in order to best muffle the screams.

Nothing about the game made any sense. Sure, I knew a win was far from inevitable. But if the Panthers lost, I figured it would be because of an injury, or the Cincinnati crowd, or turnovers, or special teams, or Kris Jenkins getting charged with 1st degree murder for killing Chad Johnson during one of his excessive celebrations. I NEVER would have suspected it was because Carson Palmer had ALL DAY to hang back and make passes behind an O-Line that was down two starters. And the really shocking thing is, the Panthers KNEW he was going to pass and they STILL couldn’t get to him. This is not an exaggeration: early in the 3rd quarter, the Bengals actually stopped running the ball altogether. I mean they just completely STOPPED. They even threw on 4th and 1! I have no idea why, considering Rudi Johnson had been doing pretty well up until then, but the bottom line is there was no mystery, and no trickery, as to what they were doing, and the Panthers couldn’t even pressure him. And the crowd was never a factor. I don’t know if they were inebriated or what, but they were fairly docile the whole time. I just don’t get it. Random afterthought: don’t Charlotte and Cincinnati both claim to be “The Queen City?” First of all, why is this? And second, why wasn’t this billed as The Battle of the Queen City?

Defensive Player of the Week: Ronde Barber, who was finally spotted in Tampa Bay this week intercepting two passes for touchdowns, right when I was about to put him atop my 2006 MIA List (along with Larry Johnson, who also broke out this week).

Offensive Player of the Week: Peyton Manning. Watching him operate in the second half reminded me (though probably not commentator Troy Aikman) of the line from Slayer’s Angel of Death: “Surgery! With no anesthesia! Feel the knife pierce you intensely!” Beginning in the second half, he reduced the formerly confident Redskins defense to reeses monkeys, screaming and kicking helplessly around the field while he coldly, clinically carved them up. By the way, Colts fans have to be the most spoiled in the league. Corey Simon goes down, and what do they do? Go out and acquire Anthony McFarland, for a second round draft pick and some fancy stationary.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

My Weekly NFL Pool (which I humbly submit as the greatest system ever)

I participate in a weekly NFL with friends and family. There's no money involved, because I'm in grad school and thus need to refrain until I have an actual income. There aren't really any bragging rights involved either (unless I happen to win). The real purpose is to unleash my deepest introspections and NFL meditations on innocent family members and friends (see "Week By Week NFL Thoughts").

Anyway, I'm trailing my father in our pool, but I don't feel too bad because he actually performs regression analysis to make his picks. I'm not making thisup. What's weird is, this is also the same man who frequently can't remembermy phone number and address, even though I've personally entered both into hiscell phone, PDA, and address book, and shown him repeatedly how to look themup. He's Rain Man like that.

My wife also plays, but her picks technically aren't factually-based. She picks"Green Bay" because it sounds like "Green Day" (her favorite band). And shepicks animals she likes, so the Dolphins, Seahawks, Ravens, Cardinals, andColts are always winners (for her, the conflict is when they end up playingeach other, in which case she picks whichever team's colors are "prettiest"). She's more or less the control group to make me feel better about wasting allthose hours researching teams.I like our system.

The way we play is, however many games there are this week, that's how many points you have to put down. So let's say there are fourteen games this week. What you have to do is pick the winner of each game, and assign a number from 1-14 for each game, with 1 being the pick you're least confident in, and 14 being the one you're most confident in. So for last Monday's Bears-Cardinals game, I had 13 on the Bears (which I ended up immensely regretting for about 3.5 quarters). Meanwhile my 1-pointer last week was the Jets to beat the Dolphins. You have to use every number and you can only use a number once, so it's a forced distribution. If the team wins, you get the points; if not you get zero, and the person with the most points wins. The team only needs to win; no spreads. You should try it this weekend and see how you do.

Some weeks are harder than others, and you end up just wanting to put "1" on every game. Other times, you end up rooting for a team to lose even though you picked them, because you only had 1 on them while some knucklehead (in this case, my best friend Aaron) put a ridiculously high number on them (10, to be specific--on the JETS!!). And in case you're wondering, for games like the Dolphins-Jets, yes, you DO have to pick someone to win.

Okay, this blog has been EXTREMELY dorky, even by my standards, barely one step cooler than bragging their World of Warcraft quests. But I like our system, and it's pretty cool when you stop and think about it...although I'm notsure why someone actually WOULD stop and think about it.

Another Tragic Case of Yankee Addiction

Before the name was associated with the innovative baseball statistician, “William James” commonly referred to the turn-of-the-century philosopher/psychologist. The original James was the progenitor of radical empiricism, a doctrine that insists on the equal validity of all stimuli--internal or external, real or imagined. For a radical empiricist, whether you burned your finger lighting your grill or you saw Jesus appear in your barbecue flames, no experience should be discounted. Emotional responses and their shaping effects on personality and thought process are the bottom line, and their legitimacy is independent of their causes.

I turn to good ol’ Bill J. for comfort anytime the New York Yankees lose, and the reason is twofold. First, every Yankees defeat inspires in me intense, inconsolable grief. I don’t just mean big games, either; I’m talking trivial mid-summer games against non-rivals. Second, as I lie there mourning, I’m simultaneously fully cognizant of the sheer absurdity of my emotions. It’s utterly ridiculous, my brain attempts to rationalize, for a grown man with steady employment, a loving wife, and fully-functional testicles, to become so profoundly despondent by the fortunes of a group of professional athletes. The contradiction is even more incongruous considering that I have no personal relationships with any of the team’s players, nor any financial transactions hinging on the outcome. Further, I am not overly emotional by nature; I’ve buried loved ones, best friends, and favorite pets without so much as shedding a tear. Yet there is no denying the stark tangibility of my post-loss anguish and suffering: I know for a fact that I will feel aimless and hopeless, I will have difficulty sleeping, and (most disturbingly) I will act sullen and withdrawn around friends and family. Therefore, I seek out James for redemption.

To wit, take a recent mid-June weekend in which the Yankees traveled to Washington, DC for a 3-game series against the host Nationals. Friday night started happily enough with the Yankees emerging triumphant. And on Saturday, when the Yankees opened up an early 9-2 lead, I naively settled in for an afternoon of basking in the burgeoning rout. Unfortunately, what followed was a steady, maddening erosion of said lead, culminating in an eventual 12-9 disaster. My ensuing agony was multidimensional, informed by the loss itself, the wasted afternoon, the emotional exhaustion of dissolved optimism, and the grim realization that a sleepless night was forthcoming.

By contrast, Sunday’s loss was different in execution and my corresponding response but consistent in its emotional output. This time, a soul-crushing 2-run walk-off homer by the Nationals in the bottom of the ninth ended the Yankees’ lead and the game itself with pitiless swiftness. Lying on my bed and listening to radio broadcaster John Sterling’s doubtless description of the home run’s fatal parabola, I froze. I gasped. I think I even laughed. I turned off the radio, turned it on, and turned it off again. I walked around in aimless circles, and then I capsized back on the bed and moaned softly for several moments. Whereas Saturday’s affair was an arduously slow and torturous death, Sunday was a sudden decapitation from a massive scythe out of nowhere. In sum, the weekend’s consecutive calamities combined to challenge the entirety of my coping abilities.

The entire behavioral cycle of Yankee fandom, characterized by self-inflicted trauma, is illogical at best and borderline masochistic at worst, and yet I am clearly not alone. Yankees fans are well aware of the team’s Brobdingnagian payroll and the subsequent resentment it sparks in the hearts of others. And though we make no apologies for the financial inequality, we are uniquely burdened with a high-stakes urgency to win it all or be viewed as consummate failures. Given the financial resources, to win is merely to do the expected; to lose is shameful and inexcusable. The pain is therefore amplified disproportionately vis-à-vis that of competing fans. Even when the Yankees do win it all, the hegemonic feeling is relief rather than ecstasy, a temporary unburdening in this Sisyphusian existence.

I never saw the contrast in fan personas more vividly than the 2004 American League Championship Series. For purposes of my own mental health, I will keep the synopsis brief. In the best-of-seven set, in which the winner would advance to the World Series, the Yankees won the first three games against their fiercest rival, the Boston Red Sox. As the third game wound down at Fenway Park, the television cameras scanned the crowd of Bostonians and revealed an ironically cheerful bunch, shrugging and laughing away what appeared to be a certain loss with a general c’est-la-vie air of dismissal. Of course, what followed was one of the most spectacular collapses in sports history: the Red Sox came roaring back and rattled off four straight wins, taking Game 7 by a landslide at Yankee Stadium. This time when the cameras captured the audience’s reaction, the scene was a colorized version of the JFK funeral procession. Forever burned in my mind are the images of entire families clutching themselves and weeping; young women with their Yankee caps pulled low, unable to watch; a man lying prostrate across the seats and openly sobbing. Through my own devastation, it occurred to me how satisfying it must be to defeat us, because we react exactly how you as opposing fans would want.

The years have been accumulating since the last Yankees World Series victory—six and counting. Each year the team falls short, on the day after their elimination, the echo of nationwide sports talk show pundits gleefully reporting their latest failure is prodigious. Even at my current home in Durham, NC, where the topic of sports radio shows rarely strays from UNC/Duke/NC State-related mudslinging, a one-day truce is called so callers can unite in the anti-Yankee pile-on celebration. Again, because of the money imbalance, the rejoicing in understandable. But couldn’t there be at least one other successful team whose losses catalyze nationwide, unabashed joy? Where, for instance, were the mass revelers in ’99 when the post-Jordan Bulls finished last?

Though I would love to conclude with a positive anecdote or two, nicely segueing to an explanation of why it’s “all worth it” to be a Yankees fan, a) I have none, and b) it’s not. The entire affair is as tragically mysterious as a debilitating addiction, complete with murky origins and helpless self-resentment at being unable to quit. The son of sports fans, I was probably genetically predisposed to the condition. I take my relief where I can find it, be it commiserating with Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch” (a masterwork that I am convinced was written specifically for me) or making treks out to Yankee Stadium, where I can at least suffer losses in the company of 50,000 sympathizing co-dependents. And as the mid-summer gives way to autumn’s inevitable shattered dreams, I wish William James was still around. He’d soothe me by pointing out that though there’s no rational basis for my suffering, at least no one should scoff at it. Of course, being a New Englander, he’d probably also be a Red Sox fan.

NFL Thoughts, Weeks 2-6

WEEK 2
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.

WEEK 3
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.

WEEK 4
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 clichés.

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!"

WEEK 5
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 fromcnnsi.com'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?


WEEK 6
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.

Proving Us Wrong, Proving Yourself Foolish: Quit Playing The Underdog Card!

As soon as he said the words, my heart sank. Describing his team’s championship run after winning the decisive Game 6, Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade repeatedly mentioned his team “proving everyone wrong” and relishing a victory in which “no one gave them a chance.” “People doubted us all year,” chimed in teammate Shaquille O’Neal, “everyone counted us out, no one gave us the respect we deserved.” The otherwise adorable Wade and O’Neal have now sadly become the latest victims of a disturbing epidemic in sports: the Doubter Boogeyman Syndrome (DBS). If you have been following any sport recently—from tennis to Ultimate Fighting—you have probably encountered DBS, the annoying tendency of winners to proclaim that the most satisfying aspect of their victories is proving their doubters—whom they are convinced exist in legions—wrong.

The tendency of athletes to cast themselves as overlooked underdogs in order to gain a psychological edge is well-documented. Dean Smith famously believed his Michael Jordan-endowed UNC Tar Heels never had a chance against anyone. Many coaches post disparaging remarks made by opposing teams in the locker room in order to “fire-up” their players. Contradictory as it may seem, superior performance through self-fabricated inferiority is a common athletic approach. I suppose therefore that gloating to media pundits and/or society at large for predicting the opposing team to win is a natural behavioral follow-up of this mentality. Nonetheless, it is an unnecessarily tactless act, devoid of any charm whatsoever, that does nothing to augment the athlete’s own accomplishments or ingratiate him- or herself with fans.

DBS can also be utterly ridiculous when the victorious team was in fact an odds-on favorite. The Miami Heat are such a team. Two seasons ago, the Heat finished one game short of the NBA Finals. Then, just prior to this season, the Heat acquired several veteran talents for roughly the cost of some upscale stationary. Along with their incumbent core talent—including the legendary O’Neal and the explosive burgeoning superstar Wade—this amalgamated Super Group was a no-brainer on everyone’s short list of primary contenders. The scales of opinion further tipped in their favor when General Manager and Hall of Fame shoo-in Pat Riley installed himself as head coach. All season, the Heat and Detroit Pistons were interchangeable at #1 and #2 for best teams in the Eastern Conference. Not only were there no doubters, the consensus opinion was that anything less than an NBA championship for the Heat would be an underachievement. Wade and O’Neal’s post-game doubter-paranoia was completely preposterous.

Even when the champions did have actual nay-sayers along the way, DBS can be grating. Take the Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh Steelers. Admittedly, there were loads of skeptics, but what is one supposed to think when the team isn’t all that good? In his post-game remarks, Steeler linebacker Joey Porter posited, "It feels so much better to do something people say you can't do. There's no better feeling than that.” Well, Joey, in a game that features two teams, we all have to pick somebody, and let’s face it, your team did not even win its own division and was the last to qualify for the playoffs. Only someone with the blind faith of a jihadist would not see cause for questioning the Steelers’ chances. Further, the Steelers’ two keynote playoff wins (against the Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks) were clumsy, forgettable affairs marred by missed opportunities and poor officiating; picture David triumphing because Goliath tripped and fell on his face.

And what’s with the “can’ts?” "There's a lot of people telling you that you can't do it but, you know what, that doesn't mean you don't go try," Steelers coach Bill Cowher waxed philosophically. Cowher also revealed--straight-facedly--that before the game he reminded his team that Christopher Columbus was once told he’d never discover the New World. Forgive me if I don’t start humming “We Shall Overcome,” Coach, but no one said you “can’t.” I defy you to show me a single headline that read: “Steelers Can’t Possibly Win Super Bowl XL (subtitle: Lawmakers Refuse to Allow It).” In this case, as in all others, impartial analysts holistically evaluated the empirical evidence of a 16-game sample set and respectfully proffered the most likely outcome in a single-loss elimination playoff format. The Steelers were hardly Jesse Owens competing in front of Nazi Germany.

Everyone knows that interviews with athletes are a no-win formality. Bland jocks are criticized for their boring clichés, while the more colorful athletes risk creating needless controversy with incendiary remarks. With its passive-aggressive nature (these actual doubters—supernumerary though they may be—are seldom named), DBS probably originated from a well-intentioned desire to say something interesting yet also vague and inflammable. Unfortunately, because athletes clearly take notes on each other’s interview techniques, DBS has become an insidious default comment, accessible to all, even humble churchgoers such as the aforementioned D-Wade. Maybe this mental stance is cyclic, and in another decade the delusional protocol will shift the other way: after every victory, athletes will claim their team to be the greatest of all time.

Either way, I suppose we should be thankful DBS is confined to sports. What if every award acceptor had this sort of fabricated chip on his or her shoulder? What if instead of accepting her Oscar with tear-stained gratitude, Halle Barry launched into a tirade and slammed the haters who told her she’d never win after doing “Swordfish?” How about if Bill Clinton had begun his post-‘96 campaign re-inauguration speech by describing the impossible odds he’d overcome to defeat Bob Dole? Enjoy your win, endear yourself to the public in a series of prefabricated late night talk show conversations, credit your teammates especially when you obviously did all the work, and thank the Lord for blessing you with more points than the other team (if you so choose). Not every victory needs to be an epic triumph of the indomitable human spirit (starring Mark Wahlberg and coming this summer to theatres everywhere).