Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Mike Leach was railroaded

The Mike Leach saga took a bizarre twist this morning when Texas Tech fired him [Tommy Craggs, Deadspin] just before [Matt Hinton, Dr. Saturday] he received a court order [Pete Thamel, Twitter] allowing him to coach in their bowl game. This comes after [AP] their suspension of him a few days earlier in response to allegations [Craggs] of mistreatment by Tech wide receiver Adam James, the son of ESPN analyst Craig James.

The whole thing stinks to high heaven. Seth C of Double-T Nation, the SBN blog for Texas Tech, has an excellent post here detailing the lack of communication between the university and Leach, the financial implications at stake and the power play between Leach and athletic director Gerald Myers. Spencer Hall goes through more of the details and discusses the power struggle between the two sides over at SB Nation, Chris Brown has an interesting analysis of how this might eventually shake out and Matt Hayes of The Sporting News has a great piece on the real reasons for the firing. As he writes, "This is the definition of payback, everyone. Nearly a year after the fact. The record will show that Leach, Tech's unorthodox yet highly successful coach, was fired Wednesday for mistreatment of a player with a "mild" concussion. The reality is Leach was fired because he took Texas Tech for everything it had last February during contract negotiations -- and made the university brass look like bumbling fools in the process." There's pretty clear evidence that there's more going on here than just Leach's alleged mistreatment of James.

Concussions have obviously been a key issue of mine for a long time, so you'd think I'd be all in favour of a coach getting fired for dealing with them improperly. In this case, you'd be wrong, though. Leach's actions seem perfectly reasonable; when faced with a concussed player sensitive to light, he had him go stand in a dark room during practice. That sounds like a pretty logical treatment, and certainly not something that would cause James further injury. It hardly smacks of cruel and unusual punishment, especially if you watch this video from the local NBC affiliate that explored the "sheds" where James was allegedly confined:

Not bad, eh? They certainly doesn't look anywhere near as awful as the James' family's press release made them sound. Perhaps even more revealing are the e-mails from former Tech players and coaches CBS' Dennis Dodd published on his blog, which give some interesting insights into the character of both Leach and Adam James. Here are some highlights:

Former Red Raider WR, current Saskatchewan Roughrider Eric Morris: "You can find out a lot about a person after playing three years of college football with them. Adam James was a teammate of mine from 2006-2009. Ever since the day he arrived on the Texas Tech campus you couldn’t help but to feel a negative energy from him. He expected people to baby him and that he was going make it solely on the fact that his father was a very successful player. Coach Leach has never been a coach to just give something to someone because of who they are. He believes that everyone is equal and you have to earn respect from your coaches and teammates. Adam was never known as a hard worker. I can honestly agree with this because we played the same position and I witnessed his laziness on a daily bases."

Former Red Raider QB, current Saskatchewan Roughrider Graham Harrell: " Before Adam James ever entered the football locker room at Texas Tech I heard how spoiled and selfish he acted in a team atmosphere from many of my baseball friends. Adam was on the baseball team his true freshman year at Tech, before he ever joined the football team, and did not make it through the baseball season because of his selfish attitude. After a baseball game in which he felt like he did not get enough playing time, but the team still won twenty to one, he came into the locker room after the game and “pouted and threw a big fit” according another player on the baseball team. A few weeks later in the middle of the season, he just stopped showing up to practices or game and quit because he was not happy about how he was being treated.

One of my roommates was a baseball player on the team and many of my friends were a part of the team that witnessed all of this. These baseball players told me he was “spoiled and selfish” before he ever came to the football team. After quitting baseball he came out for football and his selfish attitude was very evident, as was his laziness. During >off-season workouts he often would be caught skipping lifts in the weight room or finding ways to cut corners/get out of conditioning exercises. When we had player organized seven on seven throwing in the summer, when he would show up he was much more interested in playing his own games on the side of the field or telling people that he wasn’t going to run any routes because the coaches do not get him a “fair opportunity” anyway. During the season he was often “injured” (it usually seemed like a very minor injury that could keep him out of practice but never out of any other activity, including games) so he would not participate in some drills in practice. None of these acts were productive for our team, but the most detrimental part of Adam was his off field attitude and actions. ...

Mike Leach was not only my head coach, but he was my position coach all five of my years at Texas Tech. I spent more time with him than any other player during my five years and had meetings with him every day. He was very hard on me and every other player in program and he held very high expectations for every player. He would push us all every day during the season and during the off-season. He felt that hard work, dedication and doing things right was the only way we could be successful and compete in the Big XII conference. He worked harder and longer than anyone else in program and was committed to winning at all cost. He would never have been unfair to a player or not played the best players he had because he wanted to win more than anything else. Coach Leach also expected us to be tough but smart at the same time. He would not pressure a kid to play with a serious injury or play when he did not feel ready to play. Coach Leach is a man that cares about his player and puts his players, coaches and the well being of the Texas Tech football program above all else."

Current Tech slot receiver coach Lincoln Riley: "During the last two years of being the inside receivers coach, I have had the chance to learn a lot about Adam James. He came to Tech because of one person: Coach Leach. Although we adamently doubted his talent, we as coaches came to see that Adam actually had enough talent to help us out. The problem, though, is that Adam is unusually lazy and entitled. Many other players on this team, specifically receivers, have a much larger role on this team with less talent. I have always been worried about Adam's effect on my other players because of his weak and conceited attitude. I recently found out that Adam deliberately undermined my authority on many occasions. This is particularly disturbing because Coach Leach hired me to make our receivers the best group in the country, and Adam has damaged this
group far more than I even realized. ...

Two practices before Adam James claimed he had a concussion, Coach Leach and I were forced to discipline him for poor effort from the previous practice and poor effort during the early drills of that day. This has been a common theme about Adam's work ethic and attitude during his entire career. Adam, along with two other receivers that were also unsatisfactory, was sent to run stadium steps with Bennie Wylie. After the practice, Bennie made it very clear to Coach Leach and I that Adam was a complete "jerk" while he was being punished. After talking with Adam after the practice, it was very clear to me that Adam did not agree with the punishment and believed that we were just mis-asessing his effort. He complained to me that we were not doing our jobs as coaches and that his effort was just fine, all of which is very typical of him to say."

Former Tech slot receiver coach Dana Holgorsen, currently the offensive coordinator at the University of Houston: "I am writing this letter on behalf of Mike Leach in regards to the Adam James situation. I was the inside receiver coach at Texas Tech when we made the decision the sign Adam James in January of 2007. Adam had no offers to play NCAA D1 football during and after his Senior year. After a conversation between Coach Leach and Adams father Craig, Coach Leach acquired a brief highlight tape of Adam and made the decision to take him as a scholarship student athlete. I was opposed to doing so in belief he was not a D1 football player. Coach Leach overrode my opinion and Adam became a Red Raider. During the rest of my time at Texas Tech I was Adams position coach where I always remained critical of Adams ability to play at this level due to being lazy in not only the classroom but also in the off season and during practice. Coach Leach was the one who kept saying he believed Adam would eventually contribute. Adams teammates believed he was selfish and were constantly getting onto him for lack of effort as they sensed entitlement on his part due to his father being a very good football player. Adam eventually ended up playing a little after I left due to his body type being able to do some TE sets which consists of around 5-10 plays a game. Adam should be thankful for the opportunity to play at Texas Tech and for Mike Leach, who gave him the opportunity. In my opinion playing 5-10 plays a game in an outstanding offense is more than he would get at any other school in NCAA D1 football."

I highly recommend going to Dodd's blog to read the whole series of e-mails, but just the excerpts show a lot of what's really going on here. Yes, all of the players and coaches above have reasons to support Leach, but it's very interesting that they all hit the same points about James. Particularly of note are the comments by the coaches on how they didn't want James, but Leach argued for him. Sounds like Leach did James a favour, and for that favour, he's been stabbed in the back and has lost his job. Et tu, Brute?

What's interesting is that this is at least in some way a reassertion of the football establishment. Leach has always been a quirky figure outside the general club of football coaches, as shown by this fascinating 2005 profile of him by Michael Lewis. Craig James is much more of a traditionalist, so it's not surprising that he and Leach butted heads.

It's a shame that this is how things ended for Leach and Tech, though; he created a brilliant passing offence by thinking outside the box and produced greatquarterbacks like Harrell, who were unfortunately overlooked by the groupthink of professional football as I've written before
. He turned an afterthought of a program into a national presence, not by traditional means but through an unconventional system that maximized his players' strengths and minimized their weaknesses. For my money, he's one of the best coaches in NCAA football.

Of course, not everything Leach did was brilliant (blocking his players from using Twitter was just dumb, his "fat little girlfriends" comment was bizarre, renaming his quarterback "Nick" was pretty ridiculous and receiver Ed Britton, who Leach made study outside in a blizzard for missing class, has a much better claim to mistreatment than James). None of that is a reason to fire him, though, and neither is this latest case. In the end, the pirate-loving Leach has been forced to walk the plank before his time, railroaded by an administration looking for an excuse to dump him in favour of a more traditional coach. That's a shame. Hopefully Leach will land on his feet, bring an unconventional but successful approach to a new school and make all involved regret this travesty of a process.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Heads Up, Part II: Independence

[This is the second part of a three-part series on concussions. See Part I here. The final installment will run later this week.]

One of the absolutely essential areas to consider when assessing and treating athletic concussions is the independence of doctors and medical personnel. Generally, injuries are assessed by team medical staff, which is problematic. As in any industry, there are certainly good and bad team doctors out there, but the unique position of a team physician means any less-than-honest ones can cause a lot of harm. These doctors and trainers are paid by the teams, not by their patients, and teams' interests don't always coincide with their players' best interests. Sometimes, it's in the team's favour for a player to return more quickly than he probably should. The classic example of this is James Woods' brilliant portrayal of Dr. Harvey Mandrake in Any Given Sunday, still one of the best sports movies of all time in my opinion. Here's a clip of his confrontation with head coach Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino) after it's discovered that he was mistreating players on the owners of owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz), who promised to reward him financially for doing so. (Warning; some NSFW language)

Of course, this is a Hollywood movie, not a documentary. Still, there's more truth behind this portrayal than many would expect. Much of the movie was based on the book You're Okay, It's Just a Bruise: A Doctor's Sideline Secrets. That book was an expose of the shady side of medical treatment in the NFL, written by Robert Huizenga, who worked as a doctor with the Raiders for eight years.*

*Huizenga later testified in the O.J. Simpson trial and various congressional hearings, including this year's hearing on brain injuries on football, which has kick-started much of the recent progress on concussions. Lately, he's also appeared on The Biggest Loser.

Huizenga's book set off a massive controversy about football injuries and the methods of treatment used, and he also frankly discussed the prevalence of steroids in football. This 1991 interview he did with Sports Illustrated shortly after he left the Raiders* is fascinating, as is this 1994 article about how the Raiders mistreated Curt Marsh, where Huizenga is quoted. Both articles lay much of the blame at the feet of former Raiders' team doctor Robert T. Rosenfeld, upon whom Woods' character was reportedly based. The medical parts of Any Given Sunday may seem unrealistic at first, but there's a surprising amount of evidence backing them up.

That doesn't mean that this sort of thing is necessarily still going on. There's much more scrutiny of injuries and treatment these days, which would make this kind of skullduggery considerably more difficult to get away with. However, there's still a huge conflict of interest when medical personnel are responsible for treating players, but are paid by the organizations that employ those players. This conflict hasn't been solved; in fact, more evidence of it came out recently with the resignation of Dr. Ira Casson and Dr. David Viano, the heads of the NFL's concussion committee.

These doctors, both on the payroll of the league, had denied any link between concussions and pro football for years despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, and were conducting their own severely flawed study in an attempt to try and disprove the relationship between NFL careers and long-term brain damage. Their resignation is a very positive step, as is the announcement that the NFL will work with Boston University on its concussion study; BU professors have done much of the work in this field and have the academic independence necessary for believability. They've already been very critical of the NFL's policies, so this isn't going to turn into a whitewashing study along the lines of the one the league was conducting.

Another very positive step is that the NFL will soon require teams to consult with independent neurologists on concussions. There are still questions on how exactly this will work, and Mike Freeman points out that these neurologists may not be as independent as many of us would like, but this is still a move in the right direction. Other leagues will hopefully follow suit and move to independent specialists as well.

There are a couple of simple options that could dramatically improve independence, though. The key problem is still that these neurologists will be paid by the team who employs the player they're treating. It's not as bad as in the case of full-time team doctors, as their entire employment income doesn't come from the team, but it's still problematic. Freeman suggests the players' association paying these specialists, but that might be a tough sell to the NFLPA; for one thing, it shifts the costs of medical treatment from owners to players, and for another, not every player will use the services of these specialists. If the NFLPA would go for it, this would be a good solution, but it would be difficult to implement and would have to be negotiated through a collective bargaining agreement.

However, what could be done without significant problems would be to shift the doctors and specialists' employers from individual teams to the league as a whole. There still would be some issues, but the conflict of interest is significantly reduced. For example, consider the recent neck injury to DeMarcus Ware, which I talked about in Part I of this series. I'm not sure if he was evaluated by a specialist or just the regular team doctor, as he reportedly had no concussion symptoms. Under the present system, though, either would have been paid by the Cowboys. The Cowboys had a significant interest in Ware's ability to play Saturday against the Saints, and he wound up being crucial to their victory. That doesn't necessarily mean that the team interfered with these doctors at all, or that their diagnosis of Ware was at all impacted by finances, but in a situation like this, there's at least a potential conflict of interest. Even if an actual conflict of interest didn't develop, it still doesn't look good from the outside.

If the league as a whole was paying these specialists, the potential for a conflict of interest greatly decreases. The Saints have at least as much interest in Ware not playing as the Cowboys do in him playing, and there are 30 other teams that have no real stake in the outcome. Moreover, medical personnel and specialists could be put in their own unique branch of the NFL, separate from the teams (much as referees are); accountable only to the head of the medical division and the commissioner, not individual teams.

There still could be problems if the league encouraged doctors to let players return early across the board, but this is where the media responsibility I discussed in Part I kicks in. Governments sometimes employ people who investigate the government itself, such as ombudsmen, auditor-generals or people in the Justice Department. When those governments attempt to interfere with those positions (for example, the Saturday Night Massacre during the Watergate scandal), it's the role of the Fourth Estate to bring this information to the public. The sports media should act in the same way, as a check on the power of the league. This would also be much easier with league-wide medical departments and policies.

One final crucial part of independence is that it has to work both ways. It's obvious why coaches and owners shouldn't be involved in medical decisions, but it's less obvious why players shouldn't be allowed to decide if they'll play or not. This is just as important, though. The macho, team-focused culture of sports means that players can't make good decisions about if they should play or not; if they do what's best for their long-term health, they get blasted as wimps and bad teammates.

A key example of this comes from Hines Ward's ridiculous attack on Ben Roethlisberger after team doctors decided that Roethlisberger should sit out the Steelers' game against the Baltimore Ravens. Fortunately, in that case, the decision was out of Roethlisberger's hands; if he had the option to play, he probably would have played, which could have had serious conseqences if he was hit again. You can't blame him when his teammates react that way. If he had chosen to sit out, he would have been blasted even more by teammates and the media, and might have acquired a reputation as a bad teammate, which could have damaged his future earning potential. This is why so many players play through serious injuries, and why all injury decisions, not just those around head injuries, need to be made by doctors, not players or coaches.

The environment of professional sports makes it impossible for athletes, coaches or teams to make the right call on their own. It needs to be out of their hands. This is why independence for doctors is so crucial. The NFL's made some promising steps on this front lately; let's hope this continues, and that other leagues follow suit.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Heads Up, Part I: Media Responsibility

(This is the first part of a three-part, three-day series on concussions. See a list of links to some of my previous writing on concussions here.)

Concussions have been getting a lot of attention in the media lately, which is great to see. For far too long, they've been the dirty little secret of sports. As fans, we love to sit in arenas or stadiums and watch violent hits, but we don't often like to think about the consequences of such entertainment. There's a good reason Toronto neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Tator called out Don Cherry last week; Cherry's certainly not the only one to blame, but he has promoted hard-hitting hockey and fights for years, has consistently taken stands against any kind of headshot ban, and makes plenty of money from his "Rock Em, Sock Em" video line, featuring the most violent hockey moments and plenty of head shots. Of course, Cherry completely missed the point in his Coach's Corner, saying he had nothing to say to Tator and was not to blame;

Of course, Cherry's far from the only one at fault. Our entire sports culture, especially in football and hockey, is rooted in the set of macho ideals Cherry frequently espouses. There's continual speeches about toughness and playing through pain, regardless of the long-term consequences. Part of this is from a lack of education about the severity of head injuries and how they differ from the standard sort of injuries. From an early age, players are taught to "tough it out" and "be a man", so it's hardly a surprise that they continue that behaviour when they get to the pro ranks. In fact, even with all the recent information about the long-term effects of concussions, we still get incidents like the recent one where Pittsburgh Steelers' wide receiver Hines Ward called out quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for not playing a week after suffering a concussion.

The media treatment of concussions plays a crucial role in how players, coaches and fans see them. Scientific research on the subject is critical, but it doesn't mean anything if the word doesn't get out to those actually involved in sports. We've known of some of the dangers of concussions for decades (see William Nack's excellent Sports Illustrated piece "The Wrecking Yard" from 2001 for one example, but there hasn't been a lot of media coverage of head injuries until the past few years. This isn't necessarily all the fault of the media; most outlets and reporters are working on tight, day-to-day deadlines and don't have the time for the kind of long investigations often needed for concussion pieces.

Additionally, beat reporters writing about individual games generally have to rely on what quotes they can get. Even if they notice a potential concussion during the game, it's frequently difficult to get players or coaches to talk about it, especially as there's a (often well-justified) fear out there that admitting to a head injury will make you a target for future hits. Gare Joyce, an excellent hockey writer (I reviewed his book Future Greats and Heartbreaks way back when, and heartily recommend it), wrote a great column for today about the difficulties involved in reporting concussions (and mentioned my Queen's Journal piece on Alyn McCauley to boot); it's well worth a read.

The state of discourse on concussions in the sports media is a long way from where it was, but there's still work to do. One key example came last week, when Dallas Cowboys' linebacker DeMarcus Ware was stretchered off the field on Sunday, Dec. 13 with a neck injury, but came back and played a crucial role six days later in the Cowboys' win over the New Orleans Saints Saturday. Ware played well, but it's very questionable if he should have been involved in that game, and that should have received a lot of attention and coverage from the media. The whole process that saw Ware cleared to play deserves substantial scrutiny, but it didn't receive much; instead, most of the coverage saw Ware lauded as a hero for his performance, with little discussion of how he was cleared to play. According to an AP pre-game piece, Ware didn't have concussion symptoms, but given how fragile the head and the neck are, resting him would have made a lot of sense.

The problem isn't necessarily that Ware was cleared to play; I could understand that if the NFL media had looked into it a bit more and reported how his neck injury didn't threaten further damage. If it really wasn't that severe and there was no evidence of any kind of concussion, that should have been clearly laid out, with full explanations of why Ware's injury was an exception to the NFL's recent moves towards having players sit out after head injuries. The problem is how little attention Ware's clearance to play got, and how many people praised his play without questioning if he should have been in the game at all. That's only going to encourage the play-through-pain culture, especially at the lower levels. Even if Ware's injury wasn't that severe, how many minor football or hockey players will watch his performance and then demand to play a week after suffering a head injury of their own, and how many coaches will let them?

Like it or not, professional athletes are role models to many young athletes, especially when they display the kind of toughness and machismo we often glorify. It's important for us in the sports media to make head injuries a consistent issue. We need to get the message out there that these injuries are a serious threat, and playing through them isn't always the way to go.

The media can have a substantial effect, especially with consistent pressure. After far too long, the NFL has finally gotten rid of its resident head-injury deniers, largely thanks to ongoing media pressure that led to a congressional investigation, and the league is making progress on many fronts. Randy Starkman of The Toronto Star has done some great work on concussions in hockey, especially with this 2007 series. Another key moment on the NHL front was the extensive media coverage of the recent revelation that former NHL star Reggie Fleming had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a concussion-linked disease that had previously been found in football players and boxers, but never hockey players. Concussions have become an issue at the league level recently, and that's a good step.

It's especially worth discussing concussions in leagues where they aren't yet a prominent issue, such as in Canadian and American university sports and women's sports. As Alan Schwarz reported in a 2007 New York Times piece, girls suffer concussions even more frequently than boys in many sports. A lot of those concussions take place in sports like soccer and basketball, not traditionally renowned for being hard-hitting. Another area where concussions only recently hit the radar screen is the CFL; Vicki Hall of the Calgary Herald did several great pieces on concussions during Grey Cup Week and turned the league's concussion policies into a significant issue.

These are all small steps, but we are making progress. Leagues, coaches and players at all levels are starting to realize the serious nature of head injuries, and that's a great thing. There are other steps that they can take to help deal with the problem, and I'll be covering a couple of those in the coming days. On the media side, though, the most important thing we can do is make sure that concussions remain a significant issue. We can't afford to let them slip off the radar screen, and we need to keep asking the tough questions about team policies and player injuries. Hopefully, some athletes and coaches will read or watch something on concussions, educate themselves on the dangers involved and behave more safely as a result. There's a great opportunity here for the sports media to actually do something positive for the games that we cover by keeping this issue alive and pushing for real, significant change. Let's not let that opportunity go to waste.

Just resting...

One problem with the holiday season is it leads to a lack of blogging time, especially when busy writing for other publications. I did manage to get some thoughts on the Roy Halladay trade and what it means for the Blue Jays up over at The Rookies However, I've finally cleared some of the backlog of work, so I should be able to get a few things up here pretty soon. One of the things I've been working on is a three-part series on concussions, which I'm planning to run today, tomorrow and Thursday. The first installment will go up shortly. Until then, here are some of the other pieces I've previously written on the subject:

- "The heads up on head injuries" (Queen's Journal, Sept. 28, 2007)

- "NHL's stance on concussions is troubling" (Queen's Journal, Dec. 28, 2007)

- "The school of hard knocks" (Queen's Journal, Jan. 29, 2009)

- "Take concussions seriously" (The Phoenix Pub, Aug. 11, 2009)

- "Football, brains and dogfighting" (The Phoenix Pub, Oct. 12, 2009)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why the Steelers aren't dead yet

Update: Yeah, they're pretty much dead.

"That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die."
- H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

There are lots of similarities between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cthulhu, of course. One is steeped in ancient history and tradition, has strange rituals associated with its supporters and can inspire terror, revulsion and insanity in those who look upon it. The other, of course, is Cthulhu.

Seriously, though, the Steelers' play these past few weeks has been pretty horrific. They suffered bad losses against the Bengals and Chiefs, then showed some promise against the Ravens with backup quarterback Dennis Dixon, but still lost in overtime. It looked like they might have turned a corner. However, they followed that with perhaps their worst loss of the season last week, where they allowed the not-so-fearsome Oakland Raiders and quarterback Bruce Gradkowski to beat them at home on a last-minute drive. They're now 6-6 with a lousy 4-5 AFC record, and their playoff hopes look dim. Not what many of us expected from the defending Super Bowl champions.

However, like Cthulhu, you can't just write the Steelers off as dead. They have four very winnable games left (at Cleveland tonight, vs. Green Bay, vs. Baltimore, at Miami). Cleveland is pretty much a guaranteed win for this team if they play anything like they should; the Browns have no offence and not much defence, and their only dangerous player is Joshua Cribbs. Green Bay is probably the toughest team left on this list, but the Steelers give them matchup problems; the Packers have had offensive line issues all year and the Steelers have a great pass rush, especially with outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. The Steelers almost beat Baltimore on the road with a backup quarterback, so I like their chances against the Ravens at home. Miami is difficult, but they may have nothing to play for in that one, and they're already without quarterback Chad Pennington and running back Ronnie Brown. They're still a good team, but I think Pittsburgh is better all around.

If the Steelers can in fact run the table, they'll be in pretty decent shape for a wild-card berth. They would have a 10-6 overall record, with a 7-5 record against the AFC and a 3-3 record in their division. Let's take a look at their other playoff competition and the NFL's tie-breaking procedures.

At the moment, the 8-4 Denver Broncos and 7-5 Jacksonville Jaguars hold the AFC wild-card spots. However, both have difficult schedules left. Denver gets 12-0 Indianopolis on the road this week, then the ever-dangerous Raiders (4-8, but they've beaten plenty of good teams and this is a divisional rivalry game for them) at home. They then face the 8-4 Eagles on the road and division rival Kansas City at home. If they lose to the Colts and Eagles, but win against the Raiders and Chiefs, they'd be 10-6. They'd have an 8-5 conference record, better than Pittsburgh, but they lost the head-to-head matchup, so they lose to the Steelers in a wild-card tie between just those two clubs.

Jacksonville also has a difficult finish to the season. They host Miami this week, then host Indianapolis, go on the road against New England and close the year with a game against the Browns. For them, a lot will depend on how hard the Colts play; if they come out flying in that game, I don't see the Jaguars winning it. If they lose to New England and Indy, the Jags would finish 9-7 and be behind the Steelers. Miami is also a possible loss. If they manage to win two of those games as well as against Cleveland, they're 10-6 with a 9-3 conference record, which would likely get them a wild-card spot.

Of the 6-6 teams, some of them have the chance to get to 10-6, but it's going to be difficult. Baltimore plays Detroit and Chicago at home in games they should win, but they then go on the road against Pittsburgh and Oakland. If the Steelers can win that head-to-head game, they don't need to worry about the Ravens. Miami plays at Jacksonville, at the surging 5-7 Titans, and then hosts 5-7 Houston and 6-6 Pittsburgh. Even if the Dolphins are 9-6 going into the final week, Pittsburgh still controls their own destiny thanks to the head-to-head game. The Jets get Tampa Bay this week and 6-6 Atlanta the following week, but then face the Colts and the 9-3 Bengals, and their conference record (2-4) is worse than the Steelers.

Thus, the Steelers still even have hope if they can't win out, but if they run the table, things look awfully good for them. They're still very good on paper and can make plays in the running game, in the passing game and on defence. If they get Troy Polamalu back, they'll be a team no one wants to face. They may be sleeping right now, but I wouldn't call them dead yet.

A slave to the grind

My apologies for my lack of posts here recently. The downside of spending a week in Calgary covering the Grey Cup was it meant I had a lot of regular work to deal with upon my return (making the above song appropriate), which hasn't given me a lot of time for blogging recently. I do have a lot of things I'm working on, though, so hopefully I'll be able to get a few of them up in the coming days. Until then, you can check out some of the Canucks' posts I've managed to get up over at Canuck Puck. Hope to have more for you here soon!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Too. Many. Men.

One play. One mistake. That's all it came down to in one of the craziest endings to a football game I've ever seen. After Saskatchewan got stopped deep in their own end and punted, they still seemed to have a great chance to hang on and win. In fact, disaster almost struck for Montreal on the punt itself when Brian Bratton bobbled and then fumbled it, but Etienne Boulay saved the day, diving on the ball. Still, Montreal only had 40 seconds to work with, no timeouts and a starting position on their own 34. There were a few mishaps, but Anthony Calvillo completed two long passes and Montreal was in position to kick the winning field goal, but it was from long range and kicker Damon Duval had struggled all game. The ball was snapped, the hold was good, but Duval drove it well right of the uprights. Jason Armstead ran it out and took a knee, and it looked like the Riders had won.

Not so fast. In a moment reminiscent of the legendary call that ended Don Cherry's coaching career with the Bruins, a flag flew. Saskatchewan was called for too many men on the field, the ball was moved 10 yards closer, and Duval got another chance. He made no mistake this time,giving Montreal a 28-27 victory.

This fits right in with the column I wrote earlier this year about the overemphasis we frequently place on quarterbacks. Both Calvillo and Darian Durant had reasonably good days after slow starts, but neither was the decisive factor. If Boulay hadn't had the presence of mind to dive on that fumble, Calvillo wouldn't have even had a chance to lead that final drive, and if Saskatchewan hadn't had too many men on the field, the drive wouldn't have mattered.

Still, you can bet there will be plenty of stories about Calvillo's veteran leadership, even though he wasn't on the field for the sole play that turned a loss into a win. In fact, the Alouettes didn't even really win, as the best efforts of their players resulted in a loss. It was Saskatchewan's critical error that made the difference. That doesn't mean the rest of the game gets ignored, but it needs to be kept in perspective. The Alouettes played a great game and made a great comeback, but it was a penalty that turned a loss into a win.

Grey Cup live blog!

From McMahon Stadium, it's a live blog of the Grey Cup! Come join in!

Setting up the Grey Cup

Today's Grey Cup clash between the Montreal Alouettes and Saskatchewan Roughriders is all set to kick off in about 40 minutes, and I'm planning to live-blog it right here. I have a brief preview column up over at The Rookies, but I figured I'd use the last few minutes before the game to write a more detailed one here. Without further ado, here's some thoughts on what may be crucial parts of the game.

Quarterbacks: On paper, this one looks like a bit of a mismatch. Montreal has Anthony Calvillo, who just won his second straight Most Outstanding Player award after a season where he completed an incredible 72 per cent of his passes and threw for 4,639 yards and 26 touchdowns while only being intercepted six times. Meanwhile, Saskatchewan has Darian Durant, who wasn't even guaranteed to be their starter this year. Durant has come on in the last few weeks, though, and led a tremendous comeback against the Calgary Stampeders in the West Final last week. Moreover, Calvillo has been historically unsuccessful in Grey Cup games; he goes into this one with a career 1-6 record. I wrote earlier this year that win-loss records are generally a lousy way to judge quarterbacks, and Calvillo played very well in some of those losses, but at other times, he and the Alouettes have struggled under the pressure of a Grey Cup environment. You'd have to think the Alouettes still have an edge here, but the quarterbacking duel may be much closer than the pure stats might suggest.

Running backs: This is another intriguing one. Saskatchewan has Wes Cates, who was a key part of their 2007 Grey Cup win and was their best player last year, but struggled with injury this season and had a down year. He finished with 932 yards on 195 carries. Montreal has Avon Cobourne, who historically hasn't been that outstanding, but had a pretty good year, finishing with 1214 yards on 224 carries. However, that was only sixth-best in the league. It's curious that in what has been dubbed the "Year of the Running Back" by many, two of the teams with the least-renowned rushing offences are facing off in the Grey Cup. Cobourne has had the better season this year, but Cates has potential to do even better, and he brings more to the table in the passing game. I'll give a slight edge to the Riders here.

Receivers: Two vastly different groups here. The Alouettes have gone the traditional CFL route with a group of quick import receivers, including Kerry Watkins, Brian Bratton and Jamel Richardson. Their lone starting non-import at receiver is slotback Ben Cahoon, who's always been one of the top Canadians in the league, but is approaching the end of his career. Saskatchewan, by contrast, features a highly unconventional group of receivers; they have five top Canadians from CIS schools, including Rob Bagg, Andy Fantuz, Chris Getzlaf, Jason Clermont and Adam Nicolson. They've been targeted by some writers for this approach, including Sun Media columnist Terry Jones, who derogatorily called the Riders' receivers "slow, white, Canadian guys."

It's true that the Saskatchewan guys by and large don't have the flat-out speed of Montreal's receivers, but speed isn't the be-all-and-end-all in the passing game; look at how much better Michael Crabtree is than Darrius Heyward-Bey. Saskatchewan has a very talented group of guys who skilled at deceptive routes and not afraid to fight for balls in traffic and take big hits. That's why I give them the edge here.

Lines: Montreal has an incredible offensive line composed entirely of Canadian starters. They've been together for years and have great cohesion as a group. Saskatchewan's O-line is no group of slouches either, but Montreal's is arguably the best in the league. The Riders have the better D-line though, especially considering bookend defensive ends John Chick and Stevie Baggs.

Linebackers/defensive backs: Both teams are pretty strong here. Montreal has the edge at LB with Chip Cox and Shea Emry, but I love the Riders' defensive backs. Cornerback Omarr Morgan will be one to watch here; he's been in the league for over a decade but has never made it to a Grey Cup, so this is a big game for him.

Special teams: This is also close. Both teams have great kickers, Saskatchewan's Luca Congi and Montreal's Damon Duval, and solid return men, the Riders with Jason Armstead and the Als with Larry Taylor. The Als have a slight edge here.

Crowd: The Riders win this one decisively. They have an incredible group of travelling fans, and McMahon Stadium is almost entirely green today. That might be just the edge the Riders need to take home the win here.

Trivia: This is the first time these franchises have faced each other in a Grey Cup, but the cities have faced off before. The Montreal Amateur Athletic Association beat the Regina Roughriders 22-0 in 1931.

Prediction: Saskatchewan 31, Montreal 28

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Vanier Cup live blog!

Join me and the rest of the cast from The CIS Blog for a live blog of the Vanier Cup contest between Queen's and the University of Calgary. Kickoff is set for 12 p.m. Eastern/10 a.m. Mountain/9 a.m. Pacific.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Link Train: Grey Cup Special

I've been planning to bring back my regular Link Train feature for some time now,and the amount of great coverage of the Grey Cup out there provides an excellent opportunity. I'll throw in a few Vanier Cup links as well, as I'll be live-blogging that game (from my Calgary hotel room) with the rest of the gang from The CIS Blog tomorrow at 12 p.m. Eastern (10 a.m. Mountain, 9 a.m. Pacific. I'll be back to regular coverage of other sports as well after Grey Cup Weekend.

Song of the Day: U2 - Mysterious Ways

This has always been one of my favourite U2 songs. The rhythm groove of bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. fits perfectly with The Edge's guitar work and Bono's vocals. Plus, it was played at CFL commissioner Mark Cohon's press conference this morning, which gave me a great excuse to use it here.

League links:

- David Naylor of The Globe and Mail reports that Argonauts' owners David Cynamon and Howard Sokolowski are leaning towards keeping the team, and once again investigating the possibility of playing at BMO Field.

- Vicki Hall of The Calgary Herald has a great piece on former CFL linebacker Jerry Campbell's struggles with concussions.

- Lowell Ullrich of The Province with a story on Ricky Foley being named as top Canadian.

- My page over at, where I weigh in on what makes the CFL and its players unique.

Montreal links:

- Cam Cole of the Vancouver Sun has a nice column on Anthony Calvillo's quest to improve his 1-5 record in Grey Cups.

- Herb Zurkowsky of the Montreal Gazette on Calvillo's historic repeat as the CFL's Most Outstanding Player.

Saskatchewan links:

- Sean Fitz-Gerald of the National Post on Chris Szarka's successful campaign for Regina city council.

- Rob Vanstone of the Regina Leader-Post on how former head coach Kent Austin's impact is still felt.

- Kevin Mitchell of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix on the rise to prominence of Rob Bagg (who I wrote a sports feature on earlier this year).

Vanier Cup Links:

- Neate Sager with a nice post on the importance of Queen's offensive and defensive lines [The CIS Blog].

- Chris Lund also has some good thoughts on the subject [Always OUA].

- Rita Mingo on Osie Ukwuoma's time at the Stampeders' training camp and how it's improved his play [The Calgary Herald].

- Mingo also talks to former Dinos' coach Peter Connellan, who led Calgary to a Vanier Cup victory over Queen's in 1983. [The Calgary Herald]

- Bruce Dowbiggin talks about the Vanier Cup, TSN and the important role The Score's weekly University Rush broadcasts have played in developing the CIS audience (at the bottom of his column) [The Globe and Mail].

Much more Grey Cup coverage to come later.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Hage shows the true CFL values

Tonight's Gibson's Finest CFL Player Awards were mostly about performances on the gridiron, but there was one off-field performance that was also recognized. Marwan Hage, a centre with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, picked up the Tom Pate Memorial Award. The award is presented annually to a CFL player who displays qualities that distinguish them from their peers, including sportsmanship and community service. Hage certainly did that this year; he hosted food drives that fed over 2,300 families, brought 1,000 underprivileged youth to a July 18 game and regularly brought 40 local kids to each home game, giving them a meal and a t-shirt and meeting with them personally. That's really impressive, and it shows the true nature of the CFL and how much some of these guys do for their communities. "I always said that once I established myself as a player, I was going to establish myself in the community," Hage said. He's certainly done that.

Lumsden finding success off the gridiron

Jesse Lumsden isn't here at this week's Grey Cup, but he's having plenty of sporting success this weekend. Lumsden, the former CIS star with the McMaster Marauders and current Edmonton Eskimos' running back, picked up a gold medal with Canadian legend Pierre Lueders in the two-man bobsled event at the European Cup in Koenigssee, Germany.

This isn't quite as unusual as it sounds. Other athletes in individual team sports have made the transition to Winter Olympics events very successfully, many of them as bobsled brakemen. One example is the man who partnered with Lueders to win a silver medal at the 2006 Olympics, Lascelles Brown. The Jamaican-born Brown (insert Cool Runnings joke here if you like) was a stellar athlete growing up, but he didn't start his bobsled career until 1999. He raced for Jamaica in the 2002 Olympics and then gained Canadian citizenship in time for the 2006 Olympics. Even though he wasn't competing for Jamaica, he became the first Jamaican-born athlete to win a Winter Olympics medal.

The move from football to bobsled isn't an easy transition by any means, but Lumsden has done well so far and is in the running for a place on one of the Canadian Olympic squads in 2010. His CFL impact was limited this year thanks to an early injury, but he's talked about coming back next year. It will be interesting to see if he pursues his dreams in bobsled, football or both.

Lions' Mallett earns Rookie of the Year

For Martell Mallett, his rookie season started with low expectations.

"Coming in, I just wanted to make the team," he said. "I just wanted to get the opportunity."

He got the opportunity thanks to the departure of Stefan Logan and injury concerns with Ian Smart, and he made the most of it, rushing for 1,240 yards and six touchdowns on 214 carries. He also caught 43 passes and added 432 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns. Tonight, he was named the CFL's most outstanding rookie at the Gibson's Finest CFL Player Awards.

"Coach Wally and the offensive staff gave me the opportunity, and I just took it and ran with it," Mallett said.

Mallett played college football for the little-known University of Arkansas - Pine Bluff, so he said this award is one of the biggest milestones in his football career so far.

"Coming from a Division I-AA school, you can’t even get a bowl beard, so to win this is great," he said. "I’m completely satisfied."

That satisfaction doesn't have to breed complacency, though. Mallett said he plans extensive off-season training. He's determined not to rest on his laurels.

"I’m looking to do big things next year."

Flory earns second-straight trophy

Montreal Alouettes' guard Scott Flory earned his second-straight selection as the CFL's most outstanding lineman this evening at the 2009 Gibson's Finest CFL Player Awards. Flory had a great year; his line only allowed 35 QB sacks this year, third-lowest in the CFL, and he was effective in both the pass and run game. The Alouettes finished first in total yards, passing yards and rushing yards per game, with 390.3, 288.4 and 119.9 yards in each category respectively. Flory earned his seventh CFL All-Star selection as well this year.

Flory passed much of the credit off to his teammates, though, naming each of his fellow offensive linemen (regular and reserve) in his acceptance speech and giving them most of the credit in his post-award media conference.

"It's easier when you play with guys like that," he said.

For Flory, a Regina native who played at the University of Saskatchewan, it's refreshing to see a lot of young Canadian offensive lineman excelling in the league this year. He said the continued development of Canadian football has played a big role in that, and that bodes well for continued

"There are so many good Canadian offensive linemen in the league right now," he said. "The future looks bright for Canadian offensive linemen."

Flory was asked for his thoughts on the recent debate around reducing the league-mandated number of Canadian starters. He said he doesn't agree with the idea, as that would make it tougher for Canadian players to get a shot at regular playing time.

"I love it just the way it is."

From star to mentor

It wasn’t all that long ago that Jason Clermont was tearing up the CFL statistically. In 2002, he was drafted fourth overall by the B.C. Lions and made an immediate impact, catching 46 passes for 735 yards and six touchdowns and earning the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie award. In 2004, he had a career year, recording 83 catches for 1,220 yards and seven touchdowns. He also put up 1,000+ yard seasons with B.C. in 2005 and 2007. In 2008, he was held to 50 catches for 640 yards and three touchdowns, still very solid numbers, but he was released by the Lions after the season ended. He signed a deal with Saskatchewan nine days later and played this year with the Roughriders.

In terms of pure statistics, the move didn’t pay off. Saskatchewan has probably the best Canadian receiving corps in the league, so Clermont struggled to find time with the likes of Rob Bagg, Andy Fantuz and Chris Getzlaf competing for catches. He only recorded catches in 12 different games this year, and only had six games with more than one catch. He finished the year with career lows in catches (23), yards (317) and touchdowns (zero).

Still, Regina native Clermont said coming home brings its own rewards. “It’s been great,” he said. “I had a baby boy 10 months ago, so it’s great to get to go home, have dinner with my family and sleep in my own bed.”

Some might be jealous of the younger receivers stealing their catches, but not Clermont. He said he loves watching the young Canadians succeed, and their accomplishments are proof of the depth of Canadian talent in the league today. Saskatchewan’s frequently started more than the league minimum of non-imports, and they’ve found great success doing so.

“At some times, we’ve had up to 10 Canadian players on the field at the same time on our offence, and I don’t think we’ve really skipped a beat,” Clermont said.

Bagg credited Clermont with much of the younger receivers’ development.

“He’s obviously been there and been a big influence on all of us,” Bagg said. “He’s won a championship and been a huge player in this game. While he might not be on the field on every down right now, mentally he helps us prepare for every play. He’s a fun guy to be around and a bigger part of this team than people on the outside probably realize.”

The move has also worked out for Clermont from another standpoint, as it allows him a chance to pick up his second Grey Cup ring. For him, one of the few disappointments is not getting a chance to take on his old team thanks to B.C.’s loss in the Eastern Final.

“For a lot of the friends I have on that team, I hoped for their sake that they’d get through and then lose in the Grey Cup.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The importance of the Grey Cup

I’m in Calgary to cover the Grey Cup, and will be providing plenty of material on it all week. First off, though, I thought I’d address the importance of this event.As a writer covering both the CFL and NFL, and one who frequently writes for an American audience, I’ve faced my share of skepticism about the league and the Grey Cup over the years. Detractors of the CFL often try to diminish it by direct comparisons to the NFL, and on that playing field, the CFL can’t compete; it doesn’t have the resources to pay the NFL’s massive salaries or stage anything on the scale of the Super Bowl. Those detractors are missing the point, though.

The CFL isn’t trying to be the NFL, and the Grey Cup isn’t trying to be the Super Bowl. Instead, both offer compelling alternatives. Despite having only eight teams, the CFL has a devoted following across the country, and it delivers exciting action that often goes down to the wire week in and week out. The three-down game makes for an interesting product dominated by passing where few leads are safe. There’s no “three yards and a cloud of dust” here. In fact, the NFL’s rediscovery of passing-oriented offences in the past few decades can partly be attributed to the influence of the CFL. Key figures such as Warren Moon and Marv Levy got their start north of the border, and many other American players and coaches started adopting CFL methods. Even with recent moves towards the passing game in the States, the Canadian product is still much more pass-heavy. This season was more notable for rushing offence than many, and even featured one team (the Winnipeg Blue Bombers) daring to operate out of the I-formation instead of the shotgun, but aerial attack still prevailed. The game’s still very different up here, and that’s a good thing. An NFL Lite approach wouldn’t be anywhere as interesting.

The same holds true for the Grey Cup. The game itself, and the festival around it, are not trying to be watered-down versions of the NFL’s Super Bowl Week. Instead, the league has taken their own approach, putting on an event that’s more about history, community and fans than anything the NFL can offer.

The Grey Cup has a long and proud history dating back to 1909, and was originally awarded by the Governor General of Canada, Earl Grey. It’s been competed for and won by everyone from the University of Toronto Varsity Blues to Queen’s University to a team representing the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Toronto base, and was even won by the oddly-named Toronto Balmy Beach team in 1927. If you’ve been to Toronto, you know the beaches there are usually anything but balmy. The Cup even travelled south of the border in 1995, when the Baltimore Stallions beat the Calgary Stampeders. Oddly enough, Baltimore later moved to Montreal and became the latest version of the Alouettes, so they’ll be competing for the Cup again this week. The Alouettes have never faced the Saskatchewan Roughriders before in the Grey Cup, but the two cities have squared off; the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association club beat the Regina Roughriders 22-0 in 1931.Those kind of odd historical notes give the trophy, and the game, its own unique feel. The CFL’s embraced that history and is putting on an event that’s all about the fans. It’s not the Super Bowl, but it doesn’t have to be; as Dave Naylor of The Globe and Mail wrote, this might just be more fun.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

CFL: Western Final Live Blog

Come join us below for the live blog of the CFL Western Final, between the Calgary Stampeders and the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

CFL: Eastern Final live blog

It's an oddly-named Eastern Final this year in the CFL playoffs, as it features the league's westernmost team, the B.C. Lions. The Lions finished fourth in the West Division this year with a 8-10 mark, but earned a crossover berth thanks to finishing ahead of Winnipeg. They knocked off Hamilton last week, but now will take on arguably the league's best team, the Montreal Alouettes. Come join in at 1 p.m. Eastern/10 a.m. Pacific to see if they can continue their run!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Queen's win shows the need for an NCAA playoff

This year in CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) football has seen some crazy games. The Ontario playoffs in particular have been excellent, and the Queen's Golden Gaels emerged as Yates Cup champions with wins over the McMaster Marauders and the Western Mustangs. Today, they knocked off the Laval Rouge et Or 33-30 (see my friend and former Queen's Journal colleague Mike Woods' CP story here) to advance to the Vanier Cup, the Canadian university championship. There, they'll take on the University of Calgary Dinos, who demolished the Saint Mary's Huskies 38-14 in the Uteck Bowl earlier today.

In the wake of the Queen's game, Canwest News Service's Peter James made an interesting remark that served as the inspiration for this post. Tongue-in-cheek, he tweeted, "BCS supporters can point to the #CIS to show why their system works. Queen's upset prevented at No. 1 vs. No 2 Vanier Cup."

That's true, as Laval ranked first and Calgary ranked second in the final UFRC-CIS poll of the season. Queen's was fourth. Personally, I had Queen's as the top team in every week after Laval's surprising loss to Montreal, as the Gaels never lost a meaningful game (their sole loss came in the regular-season finale after they'd already locked up the top playoff berth), and I predicted last night on Norman James' radio show that I saw them winning by a field goal thanks to their ability to dominate the trench fights. However, I was very much in the minority; most saw this as an easy Laval win, and figured it would be a victory for Queen's just to keep it close. There's no way Queen's would have been selected for the title game if the CIS used any sort of BCS ranking system.

To me, what this shows is how desperately the NCAA needs a playoff system. Last week's Yates Cup against Western and this week's Queen's-Laval game have been two of the better football games I've seen at any level. Things are so close at the top of the CIS that any team can win on any given Saturday. To me, it makes zero sense to rely on a system of polls, no matter how elaborate. It's the results on the field that matter, and the unpredictability of football means anything can happen; last year, for example, 8-0 Queen's was upset in their first playoff game by the 4-4 University of Ottawa Gee-Gees. We see that south of the border as well, especially in the Pac-10 this year, where the top teams are all tightly bunched and the bottom teams aren't far beneath them.

Most of the time in North American culture, successful developments come from the U.S. and are transmitted north to Canada, often much later. As Robin Scherbatsky remarked in How I Met Your Mother's "Slap Bet" episode (one of my favourites), "The 80's didn't come to Canada till, like '93". That explains this video:

However, in football, it's often been a different story. The CFL proved to be the spawning ground for passing-oriented offences, which have since taken over the NCAA and the NFL to a degree. Guys like Warren Moon and Doug Flutie weren't intially given chances in the NFL thanks to being too black or too short to play quarterback; they came to the CFL, excelled, and forced the NFL to innovate. I suggest that the NCAA should follow this trend and take a page from the CIS playbook. It wouldn't even be that hard to use a somewhat similar system, as most of the major conferences already have championship games; take the winners of those games, figure out a good way to add a couple of at-large berths and run a three-week, eight-team playoff. There would still be issues around which teams were selected for the playoffs, but you wouldn't likely have the status quo where teams can win every game and still come up short. Championships should be decided on the field, not by voters or computers, and the NCAA should take a page from the CIS playbook on this one.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Queen's - Laval Mitchell Bowl live blog

I'll be live-blogging the Queen's - Laval CIS football showdown in the Mitchell Bowl tomorrow (Saturday) at 1 p.m. Eastern with the rest of the crew from The CIS Blog. Laval's heavily favoured, but as I said on Norman James' radio show this evening, Queen's may be able to hang with them. Laval's taken a bit of a step back this year and the Gaels have really come on. In my mind, the key is winning the trench fights, and Queen's offensive linemen (particularly centre Dan Bederman and guards Vince DeCivita and Jonathan Koidis) and defensive linemen (especially ends Osie Ukwuoma and Shomari Williams) did just that last week against Western. If they can pull that off again, my prediction of Queen's by a field goal may yet come true. Come join in the fun at 1 p.m. Eastern/10 a.m. Pacific.

ESPN is missing the point

ESPN's decision to suspend columnist Bill Simmons from Twitter for two weeks [Mediaite] is the wrong move. The suspension wasn't highly publicized, but came out as the result of an investigation by Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead, which prompted editor-in-chief Rob King to write a blog post explaining the decision. Here's King's statement:

"We have internal guidelines designed to inform how we discuss the topic of sports media. These guidelines are important us, because they help maintain the credibility with which ESPN operates.

No one knows the guidelines better than Bill Simmons, and he customarily works within these standards. He also understands, as does everyone else at ESPN, that we regard these guidelines as being equally important when participating in social media.

While it's unfortunate -- and sometimes painful -- that not everyone outside of ESPN chooses to play by such rules, we choose to hold ourselves to higher standards. Regardless of the provocation, Bill’s communication regarding WEEI fell short of those standards. So we’ve taken appropriate measures."

The offending tweet? Mediaite figures it's this one from November 11, "Hey WEEI: You were wrong, I did a Boston interview today. With your competition. Rather give them ratings over deceitful scumbags like you." This is interesting, because WEEI and ESPN have a partnership. It's quite possible that the ESPN policy (described here) would kick in for trashing any media outlet, as that's what its language seems to indicate, but this is not the ideal test case for the subject; even if the partnership has nothing to do with the suspension whatsoever, the optics are not good.

The larger problem here, though, is ESPN's approach to their writers and personalities. It's not that ESPN is necessarily draconian; in fact, King went to great lengths to make that point at the final Blogs With Balls panel in Vegas.

"I’m not trying to run anyone off Twitter," he said. "A lot of the things we’re building up allow people to contribute in the same way they would on Twitter."

To me, that shows the core problem here. It's one that's far from unique to ESPN, as just about every major media outlet has run into this with the rise of the Internet (and even earlier). The problem is that many media organizations, especially those in print, regard their columnists and reporters as invariably associated with them, which is simply not the case these days. Most prominent people in sports media appear on a variety of platforms, from print to radio to television to Twitter. In my mind, it's wrong to think that just because you hire someone to write certain things for you, you're associated with everything they do and need to have control over them.

How can we tell that ESPN approaches their talent this way? As King says in the above interview about the policy, "The second sets out additional guidelines and responsibilities for public-facing employees — those who are easily and commonly associated with ESPN (talent, reporters, etc.). Unfortunately, their relative fame and public personas mean that the way they act and the things they do will be associated with ESPN and its editorial, entertainment and/or newsgathering organization. As such, there are additional responsibilities from a professional standpoint."

I can understand where King is coming from here. Slamming WEEI probably would not look good on ESPN. It should never happen in a news story on or on SportsCenter, and you can make an argument for editing those kinds of references out of the columns of a writer like Simmons; they diminish the reality and the impact of the column, making it a more watered-down version, but it's ESPN's site, so it's ultimately their choice what gets displayed there. The problem, though, is that Simmons criticizing WEEI doesn't mean ESPN is criticizing them. Media outlets all over the place employ columnists for the primary purpose of sharing their views; when such pieces are clearly marked as opinion, it's understood that those are the opinions of the columnist in question, not the larger organization.

The same logic should apply to Twitter even more so. Simmons' tweets (and the tweets of every other ESPN personality) are not published by ESPN. They're published by Twitter, which is a free service. Presumably, he is writing them on his own time, not company time. Thus, there really is no connection to the company.

Now, that doesn't give Simmons or any other employee carte blanche; if they start tweeting about committing crimes or blasting groups along racial or sexual lines, that is a problem. That reflects poorly on them as a person, and poorly on ESPN for hiring them. However, complaining about a radio station does not measure up to that standard; it's a legitimate opinion to have and to express, on his own time, away from company mediums.

The biggest problem with ESPN and other media organizations taking these kind of disciplinary steps is that they insult the intelligence of their audience. No one really thinks Bill Simmons' tweets represent the views of ESPN, just like no one thinks Jay Mariotti's drivel represents the thoughts of FanHouse or Jason Whitlock's views are shared by everyone at Fox Sports. We recognize that columnists and personalities have their own views, which are often poles apart from those of their organization. They should be allowed to express those views, not shut down in the interests of defending their organization from a non-existant wave of bad publicity.

This is rather counterintutive in terms of results, too; I doubt many people cared when Simmons took a shot at WEEI (which he's done before in his books), and I highly doubt that people at WEEI thought ESPN was blasting them. It was a non-story. The heavy-handed approach taken to shut Simmons down is a much bigger story, and it's created a mountain out of a molehill. If I was ESPN, I'd let Simmons back on Twitter ASAP, maybe add a disclaimer that his views don't represent those of ESPN in case there's anyone out there who doesn't get it, and let him get to work. His engagement with fans on Twitter and snappy lines about sports is only further building his brand and helping to promote his column, which coincidentally happens to run on ESPN's website. Take the muzzle off and reap the pageviews.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Yates to remember

(Cell phone pics may not be impressive, but they're all I could get.)

Last week, I bemoaned how many of us in the media often transform quarterbacks from a story into the story of a game. Yet, if you were to pick a game where quarterbacks were the story, Saturday’s Yates Cup clash between the Western Mustangs and the Queen’s Golden Gaels would be a pretty good one. With the head-to-head matchup of Michael Faulds and Danny Brannagan, two 10,000 yard passers and the top two guys on the CIS career passing list, many expected a passing shootout, and they were not disappointed. Faulds completed 25 of 38 passes for 509 yards and one touchdown in a losing cause, while Brannagan completed 27 of 47 for 515 yards and five touchdowns in Queen’s 43-39 victory and was named Yates Cup MVP.

Both passers threw for over 500 yards, which is an incredible feat. There are only nine 500-yard passing games in the history of the NFL, and perhaps a few more in the CFL; I wasn’t able to find those records. The NFL has never seen two 500+ yard performances in the same game, though, and even the USFL’s greatest quarterback duel didn’t meet the criteria; Jim Kelly threw for 574 yards and five touchdowns to lead an improbable comeback by the Houston Gamblers, but Los Angeles Express quarterback Steve Young put up less than 300 yards in that game. 500-yard-plus duels have happened a couple times in the NCAA, including the clash of Houston’s David Klingler and Texas Christian’s Matt Vogler on November 3, 1990, but they’re very rare.

Saturday’s game still does illustrate my point about the game being about more than just quarterbacks, though. Faulds and Brannagan both turned in great performances, but Brannagan got much more help from his team. His experienced offensive line, led by the interior core of fifth-year veterans Dan Bederman, Jon Koidis and Vince DeCivita, gave Brannagan all day to pick apart the Western defence. In the stands, myself and Arden Zwelling of the Western Gazette were discussing how Brannagan barely had to move in the pocket thanks to the superior protection provided by his line. The linemen also helped establish Marty Gordon as a threat in the running game; he recorded 81 yards on 11 carries, which took pressure off Brannagan and kept the Mustangs honest. It helped that Western was missing several key figures on their defensive line, but Queen’s victory in the offensive trenches was a crucial part of their success yesterday.

The Gaels also dominated in the defensive trenches. In the earlier regular-season clash between these teams, Western focused their efforts on slowing down Queen’s star defensive ends Shomari Williams and Osie Ukwuoma, often double-teaming them. This left holes for interior linemen like Kyle MacDonald, who often made them pay. Western went with a more conventional scheme yesterday, and Ukwuoma and Williams took full advantage, getting into the backfield on many plays and pressuring Faulds. Gaels’ defensive coordinator Pat Tracey also dialed up plenty of successful blitzes by linebackers Chris Smith and T.J. Leeper, as well as cornerback Jimmy Allin. The combination of the defensive line winning key battles up front and the backfield penetration achieved on blitzes hurried Faulds into bad throws on several occasions, but he was able to overcome that and turn in an outstanding performance despite an injured knee and a lack of mobility. More importantly, though, Queen’s backfield penetration contained Western’s running game; Nathan Riva is an outstanding running back, but it took him 29 carries to pick up 100 yards because he was getting no blocking and was often hit before getting to the line of scrimmage.

What perhaps proved most crucial were the special teams. The wind made a huge difference, as both Queen’s Dan Village and Western’s Darryl Wheeler struggled kicking into it but excelled with it at their back. However, Wheeler was dealing with a hip injury, and he missed a short-range field goal (nullified thanks to a Queen’s penalty for rough play after a hit on holder Donnie Marshall, which gave Western a first down and let them drive in for a touchdown) and an extra point. The field goal didn’t matter in the end, but the extra point did. With little time on the clock, Faulds pulled off one last great drive and got Western near field goal range, but they needed four points to tie thanks to Wheeler’s missed convert and weren’t quite able to get into the end zone. A field goal would not have been a sure thing, as it would have been from at least 40 yards out and into the wind, but it might have proved a viable option at the end if not for that missed extra point; it also would have allowed Western to try short runs and passes late instead of long bombs. However, there are always ifs; Village also hit the upright on a long field goal earlier in the game, so if that had been a few inches to the left, Western would have needed a touchdown regardless of Wheeler’s missed convert.

Despite being on the losing end of this one, Faulds deserves a ton of credit, as good friend of the blog Norman James points out in this excellent piece. Faulds played the last few weeks with a damaged knee, and was obviously struggling with it as the game went on. On the final drive, he took a hit and had to leave the field, being replaced by backup Donnie Marshall. With the Mustangs facing third and 20 with only a few seconds left on the clock, Faulds begged head coach Greg Marshall to go back in, and hobbled back on to the field. That was one of the most inspiring sights I’ve seen in CIS football; he could barely walk, but you’d need an army to keep him off the field. Queen’s brought tons of pressure again, but Faulds somehow evaded it and launched a bomb downfield. Unfortunately for Western, it landed just inches away from the fingertips of a diving receiver, so the storybook ending didn’t come to pass. Faulds did everything he could, though, and he went out in an appropriate blaze of glory.

Faulds was sanguine in an interview afterwards, even though he could barely stand.

“It’s upsetting that that’s the end of my career, but I knew it was going to come this year anyway,” he said. “Whether it was two weeks ago against Guelph or last week against Laurier, or this week or two weeks down the road, I knew it was going to come to an end. It happened against a good team like Queen’s, and they fought hard.”

The Yates Cup victory was huge for Queen’s players like Leeper, a fifth-year linebacker who had been through the ups and downs of the program over his time.

“I can’t even find words to describe it,” he said after the game. “It’s like 23 years of birthdays, 23 Christmases and a couple of parties all rolled into one.”

Leeper said the team took new lessons and new motivation from their loss to 4-4 Ottawa in their first playoff game last year after a stellar 8-0 regular season.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Coming in, we knew what we had to do a little bit more. It’s a coming of age; there are a lot of fifth-years and fourth-years on this team, so when it came down to that experience, we knew what we had to do. We didn’t have to play perfect; we just had to play good enough.”

Leeper said he was concerned during the final drive, but it was a great way to end it.

“It was pretty scary,” he said. “But that’s the way I want to win, with the defence on the field making plays.”

In the end, this was one of the best football games I’ve seen at any level. It had a tremendous quarterback duel between Faulds and Brannagan, with both making many exceptional throws. It had some huge defensive plays and even a stellar trick play, where Faulds faked a handoff to Riva, gave the ball to Nick Pasic, received a lateral from him and found an open receiver downfield for a touchdown. It also had one of the oldest rivalries in the CIS and a great atmosphere. There are still two weeks of playoffs left, but this one’s going to be tough to top.

However, next week’s game could still be classic, as the Gaels face top-ranked Laval (1 p.m. Eastern, will be live-blogged here). The Rouge et Or have dominated CIS football for so long that many believe this may turn into a blowout, but Leeper thinks the Gaels have a shot. He even took a quote from Terrell Owens’ playbook to make his point.

“Get your popcorn ready.”

[Cross-posted to The CIS Blog]

Bringing back The Whole 110 Yards

Thanks to finally having a bit of time, I've brought back my The Whole 110 Yards CFL column over at The Rookies. My latest installment, a playoff preview, ran yesterday; it might be worth a read if you're interested in looking at how my predictions compared to what actually happened. I'll hopefully have another installment up Tuesday breaking down yesterday's playoff games, and I'll be covering the CFL playoffs here and there all the way through the playoffs to the Grey Cup, which I'm headed to Calgary for. If yesterday's games are any indication, we could be in for a great ride!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Queen's - Western: Yates Cup live blog

Along with the rest of the staff from The CIS Blog and Arden Zwelling of the Western Gazette, I'll be live-blogging the Yates Cup at 1 p.m. Eastern today. Come join in the fun!