Saturday, January 30, 2010

CIS: UBC - SFU women's live blog

It's SFU and UBC again, this time on the women's side. Join in the live blog below!

CIS: Thunderbirds bounce back against SFU

The top-ranked UBC Thunderbirds men's basketball squad rebounded well from their Thursday loss to No. 7 SFU, finishing with a 77-68 victory in today's rematch against the Clan. The two teams were pretty close throughout, with SFU leading 35-30 at the half, but UBC turned it up a notch in the third quarter. They outscored SFU 25-15 in the frame and finished strong down the stretch.

UBC's shooting improved significantly after the half, boosting their field goal percentage from 42.3 per cent in the first half to 46.7 per cent after the break. They also got stingier on defence, and SFU's shots stopped falling; the Clan shot 40.6 per cent in the first half, but only hit 30.4 per cent of their field goals in the final quarters. Part of that came from the Thunderbirds' transition to a higher-tempo game; SFU didn't have anyone who could run with Josh Whyte, Blaine LaBranche and Nathan Yu. Whyte finished with 16 points, while LaBranche had 21 and Yu chipped in seven. The fast-paced offence seemed to knock SFU off guard and created lots of second chances for the Thunderbirds off rebounds; they picked up eight offensive rebounds to the Clan's five, and outrebounded SFU 41-34 over the course of the game.

SFU guard Chas Kok, who led the Clan with 18 points, said afterwards their failure to control the glass cost them the game.

"Defensively, we didn't really do what we wanted to," he said. "We gave up a lot of offensive rebounds, and that's what killed us."

Kok said the Clan weren't able to keep up with UBC late in the game.

"In the second half, we just played one speed," he said.

He said it was disappointing to lose their final CIS regular-season home game.

"I wanted to win that one for the seniors," he said.

Kok said the team still has plenty of work to do going into the playoffs despite impressive play this week.

"Defensively, we need to get better," he said. "Offensively, we need to get better. We just need to get better overall."

[Cross-posted to The CIS Blog]

CIS: UBC - SFU men's live blog

We'll get rolling at 3 p.m Pacific. My game preview is here. Come on in and join the fun!

CIS: Final league showdown for UBC and SFU

It's a special day for Simon Fraser University's basketball teams. They're hosting the archrival UBC Thunderbirds in a pair of rather important games. On the women's side, the No. 1 Clan are coming off thumpings of the Winnipeg Wesmen and Manitoba Bisons last weekend. They're looking to maintain their perfect 13-0 record in conference play, but they'll face a tough opponent in 10-4 UBC, as the Thunderbirds are tied for second in the Canada West Pacific division. It's also the last home league game for their seniors, including popular blogger Kate Hole, and the team's also raising funds for breast cancer research.

On the men's side, the 12-2 Clan (ranked No. 7) are flying high after knocking off No. 1 UBC 82-79 Wednesday Thursday (thanks, Peter!). That was the 13-1 Thunderbirds' first conference loss. They'll be out for revenge in today's rematch.

The other interesting subplot to these games is that they're the final regular-season CIS home games SFU's basketball teams will play, as the school's planned move to the NCAA in 2011 got bumped up to this coming year after Canada West put them on probation earlier this year. As Rob wrote, that also could mean that SFU's fourth-year players either end their careers here (thanks to the NCAA's four-year eligibility window, as compared to the five years in CIS) or wind up moving to another school. This adds another dimension to what's already a compelling pair of contests. I'll be covering both games today (the men's game is at 3 p.m. Pacific, with the women's game to follow) and live-blogging both if I'm able to get an Internet connection; feel free to stop by! I'll have a post-game piece later tonight as well.

[Cross-posted to The CIS Blog]

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Why NFL players avoid the "thug" label

This story from Aaron Wilson of The National Football Post about the accusations of domestic violence against St. Louis Rams' running back Steven Jackson is horrifying. According to the piece(which picks up on a TMZ report), Jackson allegedly attacked his girlfriend, Supriya Harris, in March 2009. She was nine months pregnant at the time and gave birth 10 days later. Here's the key part:

"In a complaint filed with the Las Vegas police department, Harris claimed: "Steven became enraged and pushed me to the ground, repeatedly."

And she alleged that the Rams runner: "forcibly grabbed my arm and flung me against the door. I was crying and trying to protect my stomach from the blows, as I was 9 mos pregnant. .. continued to shove me against the door until his nephew ... interceded and yelled, 'uncle, she has a baby, stop.'"

Harris said she was "bleeding heavily," after being smashed into a door handle."

This is a horrifying story. If there's any grain of truth in this whatsoever, Jackson should face severe punishment from both the law and the league. Commissioner Roger Goodell has come down very hard on offenders during his tenure, so I would expect the same from him here.

What bothers me, though, is that this story won't get anywhere near the amount of coverage something like the stupid Gilbert Arenas - Javaris Crittenton gun story drew. When NBA players goof around stupidly with guns without actually hurting anyone, the whole league gets branded as "thugs" and we're in for sanctimonious moralizing from columnists, talk-show hosts and everyone else. Yet, over the last decade alone, the NFL has had a ridiculous amount of incidents that were far more severe than the Arenas-Crittenton flap, such as Ray Lewis' involvement in a situation that led to two people being stabbed to death, Donte' Stallworth pleading guilty to DUI manslaughter after running down a pedestrian while drunk, Plaxico Burress shooting himself in the leg in a nightclub, James Harrison's domestic violence arrest (which led to this piece looking at many of the other domestic violence cases in the NFL), Shawne Merriman's domestic violence arrest, and Marvin Harrison's alleged involvement in both a shooting and a murder. These incidents are reported, but they're rarely the subject of moralizing columns and they're almost never used to impugn the credibility of the entire league and its players the way the Arenas-Crittenton feud has been.

Why is this? Well, there are plenty of reasons for it; I had a good discussion on the matter on Twitter with National Post columnist Bruce Arthur (who wrote one of the best pieces on Arenas, by the way) and PPP, the editor of Pension Plan Puppets. We touched on several of the factors involved, including the perception of the NBA, the higher visibility of players (thanks to no helmets), the relative popularity of the two leagues and the discipline David Stern hands out. However, I think it all boils down to two main factors.

The first factor in my mind is the nature of the game. Basketball is a physical sport, but football, by nature, is much more physical and extremely violent. We read about players such as Vikings' defensive end John Randle saying "I want to kill that guard!", or Bears' linebacker Dick Butkus saying " I never set out to hurt anyone deliberately - unless it was, you know, important, like a league game or something," and we laugh it off (quotes from Jonathan Rand's excellent 300 Pounds Of Attitude, which I'm planning to review here soon). We think, "What warriors these guys are!" and we glorify them for their violent urges. That isn't necessarily wrong, but we need to establish firm boundaries about what's acceptable and where and we need to make it clear that we love them for their skill and their intensity, not just their violence. If players grow up hearing about guys like Butkus and Randle, and hear about them through the prism that it was their violent urges that made them great, aren't they going to try and cultivate their own violent urges, and wouldn't that make those urges more likely to spill over off the field?

This leads to a problem in coverage, because it's more difficult to call out a James Harrison or a Shawne Merriman for violent behaviour off the field when you've just been praising their violent behaviour on the field. I don't think that has to be an issue; we should be able to clearly draw a line between athletes' play on the field and their behaviour off it. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that many people are interested in doing that.

The second factor is even more important in my mind, though, and it has to do with how the league is marketed. It's not the Shawne Merrimans or Donte' Stallworths who are seen as the faces of the NFL and plastered all over commercials; it's the Peyton Mannings and Brett Favres. The NFL's not a league of violent criminals, it's a league of goofy white guys who play pickup football in Wranglers and watch movies on their Sony Bravia televisions! I'm sure at least part of that's thanks to race, but another big part of it is thanks to the glorification of quarterbacks (which I wrote about way back when). That's why Michael Vick's dogfighting charges, and not any of the murder, manslaughter or domestic violence cases, were the first scandal in a long while that caused any damage to the league as a whole. However, even those were quickly swept under the rug and blamed on Vick as a lone bad apple.

I'm not arguing that all NFL players are thugs or that all NBA players are pure as the driven snow. All I'd like to see is some consistency in the coverage of the league's issues. Personally, I fall into the camp that each player is responsible for their own actions and not reflective of the league as a whole. Thus, I'd argue that all of these incidents should be covered thoroughly, but as individual cases, not indictments of one league or another. However, if you want to moralize about how Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton's stupid ideas on how to use guns are responsible for the decline and fall of western civilization, by all means be my guest. Just make sure you apply the same standard to the NFL while you're at it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Madden: useful for players as well?

Remember this post on how NFL coaches should consider using Madden more? Wired has a fascinating piece by Chris Suellentrop talking about how many NFL players already use the game. One of the key voices in their piece is Brandon Stokley, known not only for this ridiculous catch but for the stunning knowledge of clock management he displayed at the end of the play;

In the article, Stokley says he's done that kind of move hundreds of times while playing Madden, but never in a game before. It makes sense, though, as it displays the kind of untraditional awareness of how to work the clock that's so important in Madden, but rarely seen in the NFL. Of course, Madden's good for much more than just clock awareness; as pointed out in the article, players are also using the game to gain awareness of different coverages, offensive schemes and formations. Suellentrop actually makes one of the key arguments from my piece; the real importance of Madden is the sheer amount of hours of actual gameplay situations it allows players and coaches to simulate. Here's one of the crucial parts of the article:

“These games nowadays are just so technically sound that they’re a learning tool,” says Tim Grunhard, an All-Pro center for the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1990s who now coaches high school football in the Kansas City area, where he encourages his players to use Madden to improve their knowledge of football strategy and tactics. “Back when I was playing football, we didn’t realize what a near or a far formation was, we didn’t really understand what trips meant, we didn’t understand what cover 2, cover 3, and cover zero meant,” Grunhard says, charging through jargon that’s comprehensible only to Madden players and football obsessives.

These days, Grunhard says, high school players have a much deeper understanding of offensive formations and defensive coverages, a development he attributes to their long hours on videogame consoles. “It just seemed to help out,” he says. “The kids understood where the counterplay or power play was going to open up. Or the middle linebacker lining up for a blitz — where the gaps were going to open up.”

Now, much like with coaches, this isn't to say that Madden players would suddenly be better than traditional athletes if thrown into a football game. Of course, there's plenty of value in traditional training methods, and there's things they teach such as physical fitness that Madden just won't simulate. Suellentrop makes the excellent analogy that Madden may be like weight training; not good enough on its own, and not something that would turn a non-athlete into an outstanding one, but a tremendous tool to help turn a talented athlete into an elite one. Now, if only we could get coaches to follow in the same path...

Sunday, January 24, 2010

NFC Championship Live Blog

Who will face the Colts in this year's Super Bowl? Join me in the live blog below to find out!

AFC Championship Live Blog

Jets. Colts. Join me below for all your coverage of the AFC championship game!

Pigskin Predictions: Conference Championship Games

I'll be live-blogging today's games shortly, but first I thought I'd put up some predictions. Both these games could go either way, like anything in the playoffs, so these are just idle thoughts, not guarantees. If you want something with a better chance of success, check out Peter Pattakos' picks over at Cleveland Frowns; he's 8-0 so far these playoffs! With that out the way, let's get to the games.

AFC: New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts:

The Colts were a dominant team during the regular season. They went 14-2, and weren't particularly trying in the games they lost (one against the Jets). Meanwhile, Jets' head coach Rex Ryan thought they were eliminated at one point, and they only snuck into the playoffs on the last day. The Colts also beat their curse of resting starters with last weekend's win over the Ravens, so there's lots of logical reasons to pick them. However, I'm not going to. For one thing, small athletic teams like the Colts often have trouble dealing with smashmout teams like the Jets. Peyton Manning is obviously a better quarterback than Mark Sanchez, but can he handle Rex Ryan's innovative blitzes and shutdown corner supreme Darrelle Revis? The Colts can't run the ball, and I'm not sure how well they'll do throwing it all day against the Jets' great pass defence. They also have trouble stopping the run, and the Jets have a tremendous ground game, with a terrific offensive line opening holes for Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene. History's also on the Jets' side; this game's highly reminiscent of the famous Super Bowl III, where Joe Namath led the underdog Jets to victory over the Baltimore Colts. It also has overtones of the Pittsburgh Steelers' run from wild-card berth to Super Bowl in 2005-06; like this team, that one had a young quarterback and won with a punishing ground game and a strong defence. The Jets have momentum on their side, and I think they'll take the Colts' juggernaut down today.

Pick: Jets

NFC: Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints

The Vikings have been very impressive this year. They've got a great running game with Adrian Peterson, and Brett Favre has put up possibly the best season of his career. They also have arguably the best defensive line in the NFL. Despite all that, I'm going with the Saints. I love their balanced attack and their ability to constantly throw different looks at you. They have so many talented offensive players; Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell, just to name a few. Their ball-hawking secondary might also cause a few problems for Favre, who never met a difficult throw he didn't like. Plus, with the combination of Prince's appalling theme song and "Pants On The Ground" guy on the sidelines, there are even more reasons to root against the Vikings than normal. I'm taking the Saints in this one.

Pick: Saints

Join me here for the AFC live blog at 3 p.m. Eastern and the NFC live blog at 6:40 p.m. Eastern!

On The Ground: Breaking down the Vikings with Dan Zinski

To get some material for the Vikings section of this preview of today's NFC championship game, I spoke with Dan Zinski. Dan does a great job of covering the team for Fansided's The Viking Age. My questions and his responses are below.

Andrew Bucholtz: At the start of the year, did you think the Vikings would be in the NFC championship game? How about at the start of the playoffs?

Dan Zinski: I'm not embarrassed to admit I thought the Favre experiment would be a flop. I figured he'd stink or his arm would drop off and we'd limp to the finish with Tarvaris Jackson as our quarterback, and not even make the playoffs. Once we made the playoffs, however, I thought we had a good shot to beat whoever we faced in the divisional round, just because we've been so dominant at home. I was surprised we crushed Dallas as bad as we did but I wasn't surprised that we beat them.

A.B.: Adrian Peterson seems to be getting less attention these days, as much of it's focused on Brett Favre. Do you think Peterson is being overlooked, or is he really a complementary player to Favre now instead of the focus of the offence?

D.Z.: There's no doubt that the Vikings have gone away from having Peterson as the centerpiece of the offense, but it's out of necessity, because for whatever reason he just isn't the same runner he was in past years. I think the fumbling has gotten in his head and I think, frankly, our run blocking hasn't been as strong as in past years thanks to turnover in personnel and Steve Hutchinson fighting a back injury (a fact that seldom gets brought up by the national media folks). And, frankly, the way Favre and the receivers have played most of the year, it just makes sense to throw the ball more, so Peterson ends up being a guy you pound in there to keep them honest, and use when you get close to the goalline. Actually, I think Chester Taylor is probably a better back for the way this team plays now; he's a better receiver and a better blocker. The advantage Peterson gives you is, teams still commit the extra guy to stop the run which leaves tons of one-on-one coverage. Sidney Rice almost never sees double-coverage, which is a big reason why he's having a huge year. Plus, seems to me tacklers have been making an extra effort to go low on Peterson and tackle him around the ankles. He needs to make some adjustments in the off-season I believe.

A.B.: Both Favre and Drew Brees have had very solid years. Which one would you rather have on Sunday?

D.Z.: Favre, cause he has that old #4 magic. Yes, I've drunk the Kool Aid. Plus Brees is a Purdue guy and I hate all non-Badger Big 10 players. And that thing on his face annoys me.

A.B.: Are there any matchups the Vikings can take advantage of against the Saints? Are there any matchups Minnesota should be worried about?

D.Z.: The matchup I like right now is Sidney Rice against whoever is covering him, because I don't think anyone can cover him. I think he is a nightmare for DBs because he can jump, and because he has that great Randy Moss-like talent for keeping his hands down so the corner/safety doesn't even know the ball is coming. The only Moss attribute he lacks is flat-out speed, but it doesn't seem to matter, because even when the DB is all over him, he makes the catch. His great advantage over Moss is that he tries on every play even if he doesn't get the ball thrown to him. The matchup that worries me is Will Smith vs. Bryant McKinnie because Smith is a good pass rusher and good pass rushers tend to become great pass rushers when they go up against the most undeserving Pro Bowler in the history of football.

A.B.: Finally, who do you think will win this weekend? Why?

D.Z.: Much as it pains me to say, I think the Saints will win. Our pass rush will not be as fearsome as it was last week, and Drew Brees will have time to make monkeys of our mediocre defensive backs. The crowd noise will mess up our offense same as it did to the Cardinals last week and Favre will get sacked a bunch and probably picked off by his old buddy Darren Sharper at least once. The Saints will win it going away, Favre will tearfully retire about a week from now, and then, in a couple of months, force the Vikings to cut him so he can sign with the Cowboys and become quarterback/head coach.

Thanks to Dan for taking the time to talk to me! Be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his work at The Viking Age

On The Ground: Breaking down the Saints with Mark Hooper

As part of this preview of today's NFC championship game, I spoke to my Fanball colleague Mark Hooper of Who Dat Blog to get his thoughts on the Saints. My questions and his responses are below.

Andrew Bucholtz: The Saints didn't finish the regular season particularly convincingly, but they turned in a very impressive win over the Cardinals last weekend. Were you expecting more rust from them, or did you see that kind of dominant performance coming?

Mark Hooper: To be honest, I didn't see that coming. I expected more of a track meet, and I thought that first play from scrimmage set the tone. I really was thinking the Saints would do their normal slow start then finish strong, but they were cranking on all cylinders from play one. Drew Brees had arguably the best game of his season balancing the running and passing game, keeping the Cardinals on their heels all day. The Saints could do anything they wanted at any time.

A.B.: Both the Saints and the Vikings have gotten great performances from their quarterbacks this season. Who do you think will play better on Sunday, Drew Brees or Brett Favre?

M.H.: Brees. Favre had a remarkable game against the Cowboys, tossing long pinpoint passes to talented WRs and escaping the pressure. I think that game was also his finest performance of the year, and that's saying a lot. I just don't see him being able to duplicate that against the Saints defense. The Saints have had issues in their secondary this season, but their opportunistic defense and better safeties will make Favre work harder for his scores. Brees just has too much talent and at home will put together a solid game.

A.B.: On a similar note, who would you rather have, Adrian Peterson or the Saints' deep backfield?

M.H.: I see Peterson having a bigger impact that he did against the Cowboys, and I think he may be a big factor in keeping drives alive and third-down situations manageable. Reggie Bush could be a game-changer, but that's a tossup right now.

A.B.: Are there any matchups against the Vikings that bode well for the Saints? Are there any that are concerning?

M.H.: Vikes' wideouts vs. Saints' corners. That's the biggest concern, and the Saints will need to get pressure from their front-four to alleviate the pressure on their corners. If they have to resort top blitzes to slow down Favre, it could be a long day for Saints fans.

A.B.: What do you think the final score will be? Why?

M.H.: 34-31 Saints. I don't think you can overlook the Saints confidence coming off a blow-out win vs. the Cardinals (and another aging yet productive QB), and more importantly, the home-field advantage.

Thanks to Mark for taking the time to talk to me! Check out his work here.

On the Ground: Breaking down the Colts with Samer Kalaf

I had a difficult time finding a Colts blogger who was available for an interview for this piece, but I found a great pinch-hitter in Samer Kalaf, a colleague of mine from The Rookies and the editor of the excellent NFL blog Second-String Fullback. . Samer really knows his football and gave some great insight into the Colts' matchup this weekend. My questions and his responses are below.

Andrew Bucholtz: The Colts were criticized heavily by many for playing some backups in the last few weeks of the season, including against the Jets, instead of going for a perfect season. What did you think of the decision at the time, and has your opinion changed at all since then?

Samer Kalaf: I feel like that the decision by Colts head coach Jim Caldwell to rest the starters against the Jets was an incredibly terrible decision. I wrote long-winded posts about it, and how I feel it disgraces the history of the NFL, but I'll try to condense it. The Colts had a chance to be the second team to go undefeated in a 16-game regular season. They decided to give that up for extra rest. That was a terrible decision and I thought it would bite them in the ass. I think it has now as they face the Jets in the AFC Championship, and I stand by my opinion and will be incredibly eager to see how their decision plays out in the game on Sunday.

A.B.: Do you think the extra rest helped the Colts against the Ravens last week, or did it not make much of a difference?

S.K.: I don't feel like it really had an impact on the Colts' win against the Ravens. Joe Flacco isn't a dominant quarterback and the Colts were able to contain the Baltimore game, and I feel they would have been able to do it even if they were on normal rest.

A.B.: How do you see the Jets as compared to the Chargers? Which team do you think the Colts match up better against?

S.K: This season, I expected the Chargers to go very far, considering them for an AFC Championship and possibly a Super Bowl. The way they played against the Jets last week proves how rest doesn't mean anything, and how it can actually hurt a team. San Diego never seemed to be synchronized while New York was making outstanding plays throughout the whole game. Matching both teams up with the Colts, I would honestly have to say the Jets would have a better chance of defending against Indianapolis. The Chargers have a great offense, but their defense is near the middle of the league in most categories. The Jets are much better at defending, especially passing defense with shutdown corner Darrelle Revis (I wonder how many times this season that phrase has been said this season) and that will stifle Peyton Manning and the Colts. Reggie Wayne will be very scarcely available to him and Indianapolis could be forced to turn to rushing the ball, which would be unfortunate for them as they are one of the worst running teams in the league this season.

A.B.: The Colts have been characterized by many as a precision-passing team full of athletic players, while the Jets are often seen as a smashmouth team that focuses on pounding the ball and playing physical defence. Do you think those characterizations are fair, or is there more to this matchup?

S.K.: Those characterizations are pretty accurate, as like said above, the Colts have nothing good with their rushing game this season and Mark Sanchez has been the equivalent of JaMarcus Russell, with sadly more effort. It's going to come down to beating and bruising the guy in the #18 Colts' jersey, because if the Jets defense can do that, the Indianapolis offense will be a non-factor, and the Jets can do what they do best by pounding the Colts front line with Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene while letting Mark Sanchez have minimal chances for turnovers.

A.B.: Finally, who do you think will win this weekend? Why?

S.K.: It's punishable by death to root for a divisional rival (Pats fan here) but I think the Jets will pull the huge, HUGE upset over the Colts, mainly for the answers to the previous questions. It would be poetic justice to the team that thought a perfect record will curse them, when instead they end up facing the team, who they allowed to give the Colts their first loss of the season, for the conference championship.

Thanks to Samer for taking the time to talk to me! Check out his site here.

On the Ground: Breaking down the Jets with Joe Caporoso

For the part of my AFC Championship preview focusing on the Jets, I spoke with my Fanball colleague Joe Caporoso. Joe's a great writer who runs Turn on the Jets and knows the team as well as anyone. His Turn On The Jets TV episode focusing on this weekend's game is particularly worth a look. My questions and his answers are below.

Andrew Bucholtz: At the start of the season, did you think the Jets had a chance to make it to the AFC Championship Game? How about at the start of the playoffs?

Joe Caporoso: At the start of the season, I picked the Jets to go 10-6 and make the playoffs as a wild-card team. I figured they might steal a game in the playoffs, but back in August, it was hard to picture a team with a rookie head coach and rookie quarterback going to the AFC Championship Game. At the start of the playoffs, I felt confident because of how well they were running the ball and how their defense was playing. Also, I loved the matchup with the Bengals in the first round. I wouldn't have gone so far as to say they were favorites for the Super Bowl like Rex Ryan did, but I did believe they could do some damage.

A.B.: Obviously, a lot of the Jets' success so far has come from their punishing run attack and their defence. How do you think those units will match up against the Colts?

J.C.: I think as long as the Jets run the ball right up the middle, they will be fine. The Colts are too fast to attempt outside runs or tosses. Eventually the Colts' undersized front seven will wear down. On defense, it is always hard to stop Peyton Manning, but I think the Jets could keep the Colts' offense to around 20 points, which will give them a great chance to win the game.

A.B.: Mark Sanchez has been criticized by many this year. Do you think the criticism is fair?

J.C.: Yes, the criticism has been fair. Sanchez was simply turning the ball over way too much in the middle of the season. Fortunately, he has become more careful over the previous few weeks and realized he just needs to be a game manager and allow the running game and defense to carry the Jets.

A.B.: Will Sanchez have to step up his play for the Jets to win this weekend, or can they still win if he plays the solid-but-not-spectacular way he has in the last couple of weeks?

J.C.: I believe they could win if he plays solid-but-not spectacular. They beat the Chargers with him only throwing for 100 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT. If he can improve on that slightly and play closer to the way he did against the Bengals, the Jets will be in great shape.

A.B.: Some people have compared these Jets to the 2005-06 Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers; a wildcard team with a strong defence, a good running attack and a young quarterback. What do you think of this comparison?

J.C.: I think it is a fair comparison; both teams were constructed in a very similar way. Keep in mind that the Steelers shocked the Colts in the playoffs that season by beating them in Indy. Hopefully the Jets can duplicate that on Sunday.

A.B.: Finally, how do you think this weekend's game will unfold?

J.C.: For some reason, I am confident in the Jets winning this game. I believe running the football and defense are the two keys to winning a championship and the Jets do both those things better than the Colts. The Jets are going to come into this game loose and confident. I think they will weather the early storm, head into halftime in a close game and escape with a 23-20 victory.

Conference Championship Madness

Today will feature the NFL's conference championship games, and I'll have plenty of coverage of them here. For starters, I wrote a pair of pieces for The Good Point talking to notable football bloggers about some elements of this weekend's matchups. You can check out the preview of the AFC contest between the Indianapolis Colts and the New York Jets (3:00 p.m. Eastern, CBS) here and the preview of the NFC clash between the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings (6:40 p.m. Eastern, FOX) here. To go along with those pieces, I'll be posting the complete interviews I conducted with each of the bloggers here. The AFC ones will be up shortly, with the NFC ones to follow in the morning. I'll also have my breakdown of each game with predictions up in the morning. Finally, I'll be live-blogging both games right here. Feel free to stop on by and join in the fun!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

On Conan O'Brien, Bill Simmons and ego

Like many of you out there, I watched the final episode of "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien" earlier this evening. I thought Conan gave one hell of an exit, particularly in the montage set to the glorious Cheap Trick song "Surrender", his final speech and the final song, "Free Bird", featuring Will Ferrell, Beck, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Ben Harper and the Tonight Show band. You can check that out below:

It was a sad moment for me. I thought SB Nation's Andrew Sharp summarized a lot of it well in this piece; part of the reason many people empathized with Conan was he seemed like such a likeable, modest guy, especially compared to the likes of his predecessor and successor, Jay Leno, whose picture may be found in the dictionary under "Ego". To see a guy like that jerked around and eventually destroyed by a corporate machine isn't a lot of fun.

As mentioned above, the final show was great, though, and it was fun talking about it on Twitter with other writers and sports bloggers. It was interesting to see how much support for Conan there was out there in the tubes of the Internet; of the people I follow, I perhaps saw one or two tweets expressing support for Leno over the past week, and just about everyone else I saw was fervently declaring themselves in favour of Conan. Yet, there was one rather discordant note, and one very relevant to sports; the scathing criticism of Conan ESPN columnist Bill Simmons delivered in this interview with Will Leitch, former Deadspin head honcho and current writer for New York Magazine.

It's not that Simmons is necessarily that far off the mark. Parts of his analysis are right on, such as the bit about not requiring a good lead-in. The vitriol he unleashes, though, such as calling Conan "whiny" and saying his show "sucked" seems a little unnecessary, as does saying that Conan should go back to competing for the "egghead" demographic. On its own, that's not really enough to care about; Simmons is entitled to his opinions, and it's not really that relevant to the sports world what he thinks about late-night television. For me, though, this piece really illustrated the change in Bill Simmons, and why I don't enjoy his writing nearly as much these days.

For those unfamiliar with Simmons, you can catch up on his history at the always-helpful Wikipedia, or you can get the short version right here. Basically, he worked at the Boston Herald for a bit and ran an independent sports website; he then jumped to ESPN, became a writer for The Jimmy Kimmel Show for a couple years, wrote two books (Now I Can Die In Peace, a 2005 book about the Red Sox's 2004 World Series victory, and last year's The Book of Basketball), took up podcasting in addition to his columns and helped put together ESPN's excellent 30 for 30 documentary series.

When he first started, Simmons was particularly noteworthy for writing from a fan's perspective. He became one of the first bloggers to achieve real mainstream success, and inspired many others in the process. Over time, that changed, though, and now he's largely disassociated himself from the blogosphere, as Andy Hutchins points out in this post. Why and how has Simmons changed, and how does this relate to late-night television?

I think the change in Simmons is perhaps most prominently displayed in his books (both of which are excellent). Now I Can Die In Peace was a deeply personal story about Simmons' history with the Red Sox and their litany of soul-crushing defeats. It was something readers, writers and sports fans could empathize with. By contrast, The Book Of Basketball was a much more ambitious and egotistical project; it was basically Simmons' attempt to categorize all aspects of the NBA's history and rank its players and teams. There were still plenty of personal anecdotes and fan moments, but it was much more declarative. Instead of telling us about why he loved particular players or teams, Simmons told us why player X was definitively better than player Y. That's where I think he went wrong.

As long-time readers of this site will know, my mission statement is to go beyond the black and white analysis that pervades our sporting culture and into the shades of grey. I'm more interested in hearing subtle, nuanced takes on a story from both sides than over-the-top diatribes against one side. I don't think Simmons was ever really in that camp, as even his earlier days saw everything through the light of intense fandom. The key distinction was that he used to see his thoughts as AN opinion, rather than THE opinion, though. Then he got famous, people started relying on his opinion, and he lost track of all perspective and became egotistical. His columns and podcasts aren't discussions of issues in sports these days, they're revelations of Bill Almighty's opinions on sports. That same kind of attitude came through in his discussion of the late-night situation, but perhaps even more explicitly; the whole article read as Bill's decrees on what happened and what should come from it.

That's not to say that no one should ever express opinions on sports. One of the things I love about the blogosphere is the democratization it provides; everyone now has an outlet to express their opinions, and many of those people never would have been able to crack the ivory towers occupied by the mainstream sports media. There's nothing necessarily wrong with strong opinions either, or listing and ranking players. I think the key problem is when people go from thinking their opinion is a point of view to thinking it's the only reasonable point of view.

In my mind, that's what we've seen with Simmons. That's why he doesn't actively read many blogs these days, or engage with much of the sports blogging community; he has no need for their feedback. Sure, he'll run occasional e-mails from readers in a mailbag, but he rarely prints those that are overly critical of him. That's why his Twitter account reads like far more of a collection of his one-liners than an actual way for him to interact with anyone. In a lot of ways, he's the Jay Leno of the sports world; he doesn't care what anyone thinks of him and he isn't particularly worried about providing things that will engage his fans, as he still can draw viewers and he still has friends in high places.

I'm not out to vilify Simmons, though. I enjoyed both his books and I still read his columns regularly, even if I don't like them anywhere as much as I used to. What I'm more concerned with is what happens if other bloggers fall into the Simmons trap and starts to think,in the famous words of Ron Burgundy, that they're kind of a big deal. It's an easy way to follow, and once you start down that dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. However, it's important to remember that a large part of the success of the blogosphere has come from bloggers being open to comments, dialogue, feedback and other opinions in a way that traditional media outlets never were for decades. If we keep that in mind, hopefully the future of sports blogs will be much more like the fun, self-deprecating Conan than the egotistical Leno or Simmons.

Friday, January 22, 2010

CBC Sports Plus delayed indefinitely

William Houston reported the other day that the long-anticipated CBC Sports Plus digital sports channel not only won't be launching this year, it may not launch at all. Houston cites carriage issues as one of the major problems, which makes sense considering the difficulties TSN ran into trying to get Rogers to carry TSN2 (and TSN2 had much more high-demand programming when it started than CBC Sports Plus was anticipated to have).

This is disappointing news for Canadian sports fans as a whole, as more channels tend to mean more sports events are available. However, it may be particularly damaging to CIS fans hoping to see more televised university sports content. I've been following the CBC Sports Plus saga for several years now, and first spoke to CBC Sports head Scott Moore on the subject for a Queen's Journal piece on CIS TV coverage in March 2008. At that time, he seemed quite optimistic that the CIS might have a plcae on the new channel, commenting, "I think it’s a great product that’s underexposed at the moment."

In September 2008, I took another look at the channel (see the factbox at the bottom of the page) and some other university sports initiatives, including some of The Score's new initiatives and Streaming Sports Network's expansion of its coverage. The other two networks were already in existence and thus had much firmer ideas about their coverage of CIS events, but Moore still sounded very positive about CBC Sports Plus and the chance to televise amateur sports content such as CIS sports. As I mentioned in my CIS Blog companion piece, CIS made a lot of sense for CBC, as the CRTC mandated them to carry at least 30 per cent amateur content per week and 80 per cent amateur content per year. CIS sports fit both of those criteria very nicely, and the timing of many CIS games on weeknights and weekend evenings would have been perfect, seeing as much of the other potential amateur content (skiing, curling, swimming, etc) generally takes place on weekend mornings.

The really disappointing thing about this is that it seems the Canadian Olympic Committee's proposed amateur sports network (which I also wrote about in the first piece) is also dead in the water; its website hasn't been updated in over a year. Both networks seemed quite promising and very interested in televising CIS content, and their interest alone might have convinced the other existing networks to see CIS programming as more valuable. Even the success of one of them could have made a substantial difference given the amounts of amateur sports content they were talking about carrying. For the moment, though, it looks like the status quo will prevail.

There is some reason for hope, though. Houston's report makes it clear that CBC Sports Plus hasn't been officially written off yet, and it could still launch in the future. If the CBC is able to acquire some high-end sports properties (more NHL content, some Blue Jays games, more soccer and basketball), they could be in a stronger position to force cable companies like Rogers to carry a new channel. Alternatively, Rogers Sportsnet's ratings could improve to the point where Rogers is no longer terrified of upstarts cutting in. There's also the chance that the CBC and cable companies might be able to come to a reasonable deal that would permit the channel to launch. It's not dead yet, it's just resting!

[Cross-posted to The CIS Blog]

Monday, January 18, 2010

Era of change continues for CIS soccer

Following closely on the heels of Paul James' departure from York, famed UBC soccer coach Dick Mosher announced his retirement this weekend. Mosher had been involved with both UBC's men's and women's programs since 1986. He won six national titles with the men, one in his first year in 1986 and another five between 1989 and 1994, then moved to the women's game and won titles in 2002, 2003 and 2006. He also won Canada West coach of the year seven times and CIS coach of the year three times. That's an incredibly impressive resume.

Losing a coach of the calibre of Mosher is obviously tough for CIS soccer, but this is perhaps less damaging than James' departure. There's no indication that Mosher wasn't getting enough support from the university or had too much on his plate, and this doesn't seem like a coach leaving to pursue other opportunities. Mosher is 65, and while he certainly could coach for several more years, it's not difficult to belive that he might want to retire.

The other thing to consider is that one of the most prominent jobs in CIS soccer has just opened up. UBC has a lot of things going for it; its location in the Lower Mainland, where there's a lot of focus on developing elite female players through club programs and high schools, the success the program has had under Mosher, the amount of support the program gets from the administration (from the outside at least, soccer at UBC seems to get more respect than it does at many CIS schools, where it's frequently overlooked in favour of football and basketball) and perhaps most importantly, the program's strong relationships with the Vancouver Whitecaps' women's teams and the Canadian national teams.

There are a couple of different paths UBC could take to find a new coach. One would be to promote one of the two current assistant coaches, Jonas Worth or Steve Baarts. Another would to be to bring back a prominent alumnus, such as Andrea Neil, who's currently an assistant coach with the women's national team. The third would be to hire a head coach from another CIS school, which would then set off a train of coaching dominoes like we've recently seen
in NCAA football. Either of the first two options seems more likely, but you can't rule the third one out completely.

Speaking of the NCAA, though, that may be a complicating factor in the coaching search. As The Province reported yesterday, things are still progressing on the UBC-to-the-NCAA front, albeit slowly. Athletic director Bob Philip was in Atlanta this week for the NCAA's general meeting, which suggests the UBC administration is still considering the move quite seriously. Now, the calibre of women's soccer probably isn't that different from NCAA Division II to the CIS (and I'd venture that CIS might even be better on the women's side, given the amount of national team players who have come from each), but that's still a lot of uncertainty for a coach to deal with. That also might be another factor that would make it easier for UBC to hire an assistant or an alumnus, whose loyalty would be to the program, not necessarily to CIS soccer.

[Cross-posted to The CIS Blog]

The Experiment: Rethinking NFL Coaching

Consider a thought experiment for a moment. Say we've walked into the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and are watching the android Data. As part of his studies of the human psyche, he's examining the world of sports and has taken a particular interest in American football. Specifically, in an attempt to improve his leadership abilities, he's trying to figure out what makes a successful coach. To this end, he's constructed a holodeck program to simulate a NFL game. In order to isolate the variable of coaching, he's programmed both teams with identical players.

The difference between the teams? Team A is run by a typical NFL coaching staff, with a head coach (Coach A), position coaches and offensive, defensive and special-teams coordinators. Team B is run by a 30-year old who doesn't have any actual football experience, but has spent hours on end playing every installment of the Madden franchise since its inception and watching every possible NFL game for decades. To make it possible for him to control the entire team, it's programmed in that he sends in his instructions through Madden's "Coach" mode (playcalls, substitutions and timeouts, but no actual control of players on the field), while Team A handles their gameplan in the traditional model. Now, when these two teams face each other in Data's simulation, which would you bet on?

Every bit of common sense would say to go with Team A. They're run by guys who have been there and done that for years. In fact, because they're involved with an NFL team, these guys have been selected as some of the best coaching talent out there. They work crazy hours and develop elaborate game plans. In short, they're the professionals. Of course most people would take this highly skilled team over a single rank amateur. In fact, most people wouldn't bother running the experiment at all; they'd tell Data it's a foregone conclusion.

One nice thing about computers (and androids), though, is that they evaluate situations based on information and programming instructions, not simple a priori assumptions about common sense. Data would run his program, and I'd bet it would come to a surprising conclusion; namely, Team B winning.

Why would I bet on Team B? I'm not discounting the value of experience; in fact, I recently read Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers (which I've written about before), and I largely buy his argument that much of the success we typically credit to indviduals' innate qualities is, in fact, largely due to their experience and circumstances. That's actually what I'm building on here. The 30-year-old running Team B has his own experience, and it happens to be in a very different arena than that of the traditional coaches running Team A. My guess is that it would prove superior.

Perhaps the easiest area to explore this idea in depth is the area of clock management. Joe Posnanski wrote a very interesting piece on the subject today, concluding that "Coaches in the NFL have no idea how to use the clock." He makes a compelling argument that fans understand clock management better than coaches, and I think he comes up with part of the reason why; fans spend more time thinking about the clock than coaches. However, that's only part of the explanation, I think. The key factor is experience.

No one coached more NFL games than George Halas, the legendary coach of the Chicago Bears. He finished with 318 wins, 148 losses and 31 ties in 497 regular-season games. Second all-time in games coached is Don Shula of the Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins; he finished with 328 wins, 156 losses and six ties in 490 regular-season games. Using Pro Football Reference to rank coaches by NFL games, no active coach comes even close; the highest-ranked is Tennessee's Jeff Fisher, who's 17th with 136 wins and 110 losses in 246 regular-season games.

Now, think about that for a moment. The only area where you really get to work on clock management is in games. Sure, pre-season games help, and you can do a bit during practices, but there are always so many more pressing things teams are doing in practice, and it's never quite the same environment. Moreover, it's only a fraction of those games (the close ones) where you really have to worry about clock management; it's probably the last thing on a coach's mind when he's either winning or losing by a lot. Even in those games where clock management becomes an issue, an NFL coach is worried about lots of other things as well; keeping his players happy, working with his coordinators, thinking about playcalling and motivating his team. Considering all that, I'd guess that NFL head coaches really haven't had that much experience managing the clock.

What about the coach of Team B, though? It actually wouldn't be that hard for him to surpass Team A in clock management experience. For one thing, Madden offers the option to play shorter quarters, which allows you to get many more games in. The shorter quarters don't affect clock management much, because you still go through the same situations at the end of games. Even if you play with full-length quarters, though, Madden is much shorter than a regular NFL game thanks to a lack of commercial breaks and an ability to call plays quickly. Moreover, in Madden, you can play any number of games in a row in a sitting; in real life, you only get 16 per season (plus any playoff games), and you have to wait a week between each game. Thus, serious Madden gamers like our Team B coach spend much more time actually managing their teams in game situations than real NFL coaches.

Don't quite buy it? Well, consider this. If a Madden gamer played 16 full seasons, he'd have coached 256 regular-season games, ten more games than Fisher. In 31 seasons, he'd pass Shula with 496 games. In 32 seasons, he'd pass Halas with 512 games. 32 seasons is hardly an unreasonable figure; I've played through around 10 in the last six months, and I'm anything but a hardcore Madden user (which our Coach B would be). A casual Madden gamer like myself could hit 32 seasons in three to four years of gaming; a hardcore one could do it much faster. Moreover, Madden has far less distractions than an actual game (no motivational speeches required, no assistants to keep happy, no fans going nuts, no way to argue with refs), so Madden coaches probably spend much more time thinking about clock management than real coaches. Thus, Coach B would have far more experience actually managing the clock than Coach A.

Of course, there's much more to successfully coaching a game than clock management. However, many of the other components are similar. Consider the issue of when to use challenges, another area fans and writers often take NFL coaches to task for. Using the same argument seen above, most Madden users probably have more experience with challenges than head coaches. The same applies for offensive and defensive play selection and audibles. These can be worked on more in practice, so NFL coaches have more experience with them than they with challenges, but they're still very different in a game than they are in practice. Even if we counted all the hours Coach A spent running plays on the practice field (not as many as you might think, as practices also involve a lot of individual drills and small-group situations), though, our hardcore Madden user Coach B would likely still have more experience with playcalling than Coach A. He would have spent more time in game situations, and that gives him a better chance for success.

Now, you can make a case for Coach A if you insist that clock management, challenge management and playcalling in Madden can't be applied to actual football. If they're completely separate things, then Coach A has a distinct experiential advantage. I don't think they are, though. Again, the strongest case can be made in the area of clock management; the clock operates under the same rules in Madden and "real" football, and you can take the same measures to either stop it or keep it running. Challenges and playcalling are a little tougher, but keep in mind that Madden is programmed to operate under the same rules as "real" football, bases its plays on real plays and bases its players on real players. The quality of the simulation has improved over the years, and you could argue that the latest versions give reasonably realistic results in terms of playcalling; frequently, the same offensive plays work against certain defensive sets in both reality and the game.

There's something else that would help Coach B: innovation. As I wrote in my piece on the subject at The Good Point, innovation has always faced an uphill battle in the NFL. Few coaches are willing to really innovate for fear of looking silly; however, once an innovation is discovered, it quickly goes from laughingstock to widely-used strategy (see the Wildcat offence). Those innovations generally aren't that far out there, though; for example, the Wildcat was largely based off the old single-wing offence and was run successfully in college before it was brought to the pros.

The reason we never see anything really bizarre in the NFL is thanks to the backgrounds of the people involved. Most coaches in the NFL have gone through a very similar career arc, starting off as players, then becoming low-level assistants, then coordinators and then head coaches. They may have slightly different schools of thought based on their personalities and the coaches they've worked with (hence the concept of coaching trees), but all those ideas are really just branches of the same tree. You see this in many businesses; people from the same backgrounds tend to approach problems the same way. If you come up with a multi-dimensional business problem involving manufacturing a new device and present it to different groups, accountants will tend to look at it in terms of the costs involved, while research scientists will look at it from the perspective of what can be created and engineers will look at it from a perspective of what's feasible to create. None of these approaches is necessarily right or wrong, and you have to incorporate elements of all of them to find success.

The problem is that the NFL's small group of coaches from similar backgrounds means everyone approaches certain issues in similar ways. (Chris Brown had a good piece on this at Smart Football). There's also the risk of looking silly if you try something radical, which motivates many to stick to the tried-and-tested paths even if they do have other ideas. For example, consider the case of fourth downs. Bill Belichick got plenty of criticism for daring to go for it on fourth-and-two in his own territory this year, even though many of the numbers we have on fourth-down conversion percentages support him. That was a highly unconventional call by NFL standards, but it's still well within the bounds of what is sometimes done; that was late in the game with a short distance to go. What you would never see in today's NFL is a coach who consistently goes for it when faced with fourth down and five yards or less, regardless of field position and time left; that's far enough outside the box that no one would dare to try it for fear of looking silly.

The nice thing about Madden, though, is its judgement is based on results, not aesthetics. I've consistently gone for it on fourth and five or less and found lots of success doing so. You can do plenty of other things that you wouldn't likely see in the NFL too, such as running five-receiver sets on every play or prominently featuring flea-flickers and end-arounds. Madden users have a variety of different backgrounds, and ones very different from the typical NFL coach, plus the game design encourages experimentation and innovation. It also leads to a more statistically-based school of thought; if certain ideas work more often than not, a player will keep using them. Naysayers would argue that these ideas wouldn't work in the NFL, but it's impossible to know because no one has tried. The nature of Madden promotes innovative thinking, though, and that would be yet another advantage for Coach B.

I'm sure this idea still seems reasonably silly to many of you. After all, Madden's just a game, and games by nature are designed for entertainment. However, the increasing realism of the game in recent years has brought it closer to the level of a simulator. There are plenty of other fields where simulators are considered to provide valuable training experience, particularly for pilots and astronauts. Do you think it's really tougher to deliver a useful simulation of football than a simulation of landing an F-14 on a carrier?

Now, I'm not saying we could replace NFL head coaches with Madden gamers and instantly see improvements across the board. There are many areas of football where a current NFL coaching staff like Team A's would have an advantage, particularly in developing players from raw draft picks to seasoned veterans, motivating their players to give it all they have and juggling their players' egos. Over a long period of time, such as a complete season, I think those advantages could nullify Team B's greater expertise in playcalling and clock management. However, for the one game considered in Data's experiment, I'm taking Team B.

The broader question, though, is why can't we have the best of both worlds? What if we kept the current backgrounds of our NFL head coaches, but got them to frequently play Madden and encouraged them to try new strategies? I'm quite sure we'd see them get better at clock management, and I think they would improve as playcallers and innovators as well. At the end of the day, this will probably just remain a hypothetical, but it's an interesting one to consider. Is the way we currently develop coaches the best way to do things, or should we encourage them to take a look at the virtual world? After all, football is just a game.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pigskin Predictions: The Divisional Round

So, I went 1-3 last weekend, which certainly isn't promising. However, it was a rather bizarre weekend of games, and I did beat ESPN's Bill Simmons, who makes about a kajillion dollars more for his writing than I do, so I'm okay with that. The thing is, the NFL is a league of parity; as we often recite, anything can happen on any given Sunday. This becomes even more evident in the playoffs because only decent teams make it this far; the gap between a 14-2 team like the Colts and a 9-7 team like the Ravens is far closer than the gap between the Ravens and the 1-15 St. Louis Rams, so it's much harder to figure out who's going to win.With that in mind, I do have a few thoughts about this weekend's slate of games. As always, these predictions are nowhere near guaranteed and are intended for recreational purposes only.

Cardinals at Saints: (4:30 p.m. Eastern Saturday, FOX)

This should be one of the most entertaining games of the weekend, featuring two high-powered offences. The Saints have dominated for most of the year, but they slumped a bit down the stretch; it will be interesting to see if they can get back into form. Meanwhile, the Cardinals were creamed 33-7 by Green Bay in the last week of the regular season (while playing backups), but '99 Warner showed up last week and destroyed the Packers in the wild-card playoffs, finishing with 379 yards and more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four) in a 51-45 overtime win. The Cardinals' defence was absent for much of the game, but they actually got a pretty decent rushing performance out of Beanie Wells (14 carries for 91 yards) and they
got a key defensive play when it mattered in overtime. I agree with Samer that this team seems a lot like last year's surprise Super Bowl-contending edition; in my mind, it's even better because they've added a solid run game and a playmaking defence. I'm expecting Warner to lead them to victory again this week, despite the quality of the opposition. When '99 Warner shows up, you'd better run to the hills.

Pick: Arizona

Ravens at Colts: (8:15 p.m. Eastern Saturday, CBS)

This should be a classic "Battle of Baltimore", featuring the team that packed up and left in the middle of the night against their replacements. Karma would favour the Ravens in this one, but the Colts did finish the year 14-2 (with their only losses coming in games they weren't trying in), while the Ravens barely made the playoffs on the final day. Moreover, quarterback Joe Flacco only completed four passes for 34 yards and was picked off once in the Ravens' first-round victory over the Patriots, which doesn't exactly inspire confidence, especially considering that he's going up against Peyton Manning. However, there are some reasons to favour the Ravens. For one, they're a punishing, physical team on both offence and defence, which doesn't bode well for the Colts, who favour smaller, quicker players. The Colts also struggle running the ball (Joseph Addai doesn't inspire a lot of confidence), and Baltimore's defence might just be good enough to frustrate Manning. For me, the biggest thing going into this game is the lacklustre way the Colts finished the season; they laid down rather than going for 16-0, and I think that will come back to haunt them. That's not thanks to karma, but thanks to timing; football's a game of precise timing, where a millisecond can make the difference between a touchdown pass and an interception. That timing can only really be tested in games, as practices move at a slower speed and with less pressure. I'm guessing the Colts' offence will be a bit out of sync after taking several weeks off, and that could be all the opportunity Baltimore needs. The Colts surrendered too early, and that may hurt them tonight.

Pick: Baltimore

Cowboys at Vikings: (Sunday, 1:00 p.m. Eastern, FOX)

It's tough to figure out who to root for in this game between the team everyone hates (the Cowboys) and the quarterback everyone hates (Brett Favre). It should be an interesting contest, though; both teams have plenty of talent with balanced run/pass offences and strong defences. However, I'm taking the Cowboys based on their recent play. The Vikings struggled down the stretch while Dallas roared into the playoffs and thumped an excellent Eagles team twice in a row. Brett Favre's due to explode any time soon, and Tony Romo and company look surprisingly competent without locker-room distraction Terrell Owens. Plus, Wade Phillips is a slightly more competent coach than Brad Childress. Who doesn't want to be a Cowboy, baby?

Pick: Dallas

Jets at Chargers:

The Jets turned in an impressive performance last weekend, running over the Bengals 24-14 in the wild-card round. However, San Diego is a tougher opponent for them. The Bengals boasted one top receiver in Chad Ochocinco, an easy mark for Darrelle Revis, their star shutdown corner. The Chargers have four great receivers in Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates, Malcolm Floyd and Legedu Naanee: Revis can only cover one of them at a time, and the rest of the Jets' secondary is merely okay. Moreover, those guys are all 6'4 or taller; Revis is 5'11. That should lead to some jump-ball opportunities, which Philip Rivers excels at throwing and the Chargers' receivers excel at bringing in. They also have a great rushing and receiving threat in RB Darren Sproles. When you factor in the Chargers' momentum over the second half of the season and that the Jets limped into the playoffs mostly thanks to their opponents laying down, this seems like a good weekend to ride the lightning.

Pick: San Diego

Enjoy the games!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Trojan War

I'm a firm devotee of ancient literature, particularly the works of Homer (perhaps the second-greatest Homer of all time, only slightly behind Homer Simpson). There were far too many similarities between Tuesday's events around Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin decamping for USC and the Trojan War for me to simply let them pass. I started with a few thoughts on Twitter, but the great Peter James convinced me to turn them into a full post. Thus, we here at Sporting Madness present The Trojan War: 2009 Edition. (If you've got no clue what I'm on about, I highly recommend this primer.)

Following the departure of Pete Carroll for the Seattle Seahawks, USC athletic director Mike "Paris" Garrett was faced with a difficult decision. He had to decide on a new football head coach, and was given three options by the football goddesses. Athena offered him the path of wisdom, going after an established college coach in the Mike Riley vein. Hera offered him the path of power with an NFL coach like Jeff Fisher or Jack Del Rio. Garrett considered their offerings for a while, and may have even attempted to take one or both, but ultimately elected for Aphrodite's gift, the path of headlines. With his selection, he was given the power to lure Layla "Helen" Kiffin, judged by many to be the fairest college football wife on the planet.

Layla Kiffin (image via Clay Travis)

With Layla came her husband, Lane "Menelaus" Kiffin. Lane had inherited various Spartan thrones over the years thanks to his genetics, including those of the Oakland Raiders and the Tennessee Volunteers. He hadn't shown great kingly progress to this point, making ill-advised accusations against other SEC coaches and forgetting to send oxen off to his supporters, but the stabilizing influence of his more competent relative Monte "Agamemnon" Kiffin prevented things from getting too bad. The Kiffins set sail for Troy, bringing famed recruiting warrior Ed "Achilles" Orgeron with them, and dragging a horde of prospects as well.

With the departure of the Kiffins came riots, vandalism and other chaos. Part of this was because they left the UT campus of Achaea, but weren't able to get out of town entirely and wound up in Mysia instead, sparking violence among the natives (as seen below).

Despite the chaos, the Kiffins' voyage appears set to get back under way soon and they should make it to the land of the Trojans shortly. However, the success or failure of their war may hang on one man, Norm "Odysseus" Chow. There are rumours that he will join the war effort, and reports that he's sitting at home at archrival UCLA and sowing his fields with salt. USC has landed an impressive cast of coaches in one fell swoop, but they could certainly still use a brilliant offensive mind like Chow. The newcomers may be formidable on the recruiting battlefields, but this will be a war, not merely a short-term clash of arms. The strong may prevail for a day, but they always have their vulnerable heels; in Kiffin's case, that could be the recruiting violations he seems to pick up at will. When the strong go down, it's awfully nice to have a clever man around to pick up the pieces.

Will Lane Kiffin's recruiting violations be his Achilles' heel at USC?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Burrows-Auger controversy

My thoughts on the Alex Burrows/Stephane Auger controversy (where Burrows accused Auger of saying he was out to get him) are up over at Canuck Puck. You can read the current state of affairs there, but this situation is going to be very interesting to follow over the next few days. As Joe Yerdon points out in his post on the matter, the NHL needs to conduct a full investigation; we've already seen how sweeping accusations against refs under the rug has hurt the NBA and European soccer. As I wrote about Tim Donaghy, even the perception of impropriety can stagger a league, regardless of what actually happened. The league needs to take this seriously and show us just what happened, or their own fans will lose faith. We'll see what they do in the days to come.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Mike Danton joins the CIS

Everyone's favourite hitman contractor Mike Danton is supposedly joining [Neate Sager, The CIS Blog] the Saint Mary's Huskies to play Canadian Interuniversity Sport hockey. It's not clear yet [Noah Love, National Post] if he'll be able to play later this season or if he'll have to wait until next year, but he has already enrolled in the university.

Danton during his days with the St. Louis Blues

From a strict on-ice perspective, this is probably a good thing for the Huskies. Regardless of his legal issues and prison time, Danton at one point has the skills to play in the NHL. It may take a while for him to regain that form, and he may never be back at where he was, but he'll probably still be one of the most talented players in the league. Most guys in CIS are former major junior players who couldn't make it to the AHL or the NHL; some of the top CIS talents in recent years (such as UNB's Rob Hennigar) have gone on to pro deals. Danton wasn't much of a scoring threat in the NHL, but he did pretty well with the OHL's Barrie Colts and the AHL's Albany River Rats (curiously enough, that's the same team Hennigar's playing for at the moment). If Danton is able to regain his pre-prison form, he could become a dominant CIS player like Hennigar.

From a league perspective, this is more troubling, though. CIS hockey gets next to no attention in Canada (aside from the occasional well-intentioned but completely off-base column, such as this one penned by The Globe and Mail's Allan Maki last week). Now, it will be in the spotlight not for anything positive, but rather for its acceptance of a convicted felon who once tried to hire a hitman. That goes against every image CIS tries to portray, and that's why I have a feeling this move might get some scrutiny from the upper echelons of CIS.

It would be far easier to downplay those concerns if Danton appeared repentant. People make mistakes, and our society is usually happy to provide them with second chances (see Michael Vick's comeback with the Philadelphia Eagles). The problem, though, is unlike Vick, Danton still isn't admitting to much of anything. As William Houston pointed out after Danton's "interview" with Rogers Sportsnet, he didn't say much about what happened, and what he did say made little to no sense. In Danton's case, the situation obviously isn't all his fault, and a good part of the blame must fall on his agent, David Frost (who's still creepily running his Hockey God Online website). Still, I'd like to see some evidence that Danton has dealt with his issues and is really a changed man before his comeback starts. If he is sincere and has changed, fantastic; everyone deserves a second chance, and it could be great for CIS to be associated with his comeback. At the moment, though, this looks like a potential black eye for CIS hockey, which it surely doesn't need at the moment.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Pigskin Predictions: Wild-card weekend picks

The NFL playoffs are underway, so it's time for some picks! My pick for the Super Bowl this year is the Chargers over the Saints; this weekend's games aren't terribly relevant to that prediction, as both teams have a first-round bye, but they should still be entertaining. Let's get to the breakdowns.

Jets at Bengals: (today, 4:30 p.m. ET)

The Jets thumped Cincinnati last week, but I don't think they'll do it again. For one thing, they're too one-dimensional on offence; they have a great running attack, but they're in the playoffs despite Mark Sanchez, not because of him. I like their defence, especially Darrelle Revis, but I'm not sure they'll be able to stop the Bengals' ground game with Cedric Benson (who didn't play last week). Keep in mind that the Jets backed into the playoffs after the Colts and Bengals laid down for them in the past two weeks. I'm also taking Carson Palmer over Sanchez any day.

Pick: Bengals

Eagles at Cowboys: (tonight, 8 p.m. ET)

The Cowboys are the popular pick here thanks to their demolition of the Eagles last week, but I don't trust them at all. Their running game is good and their defence is at times acceptable, but they really have one star receiver (Miles Austin) and a great tight end (Jason Witten). Their offensive weapons pale in comparison to those of the Eagles, and their defence and special teams are nowhere near as intimidating. Plus, I trust Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb more than Wade Phillips and Tony Romo.

Pick: Eagles

Ravens at Patriots: (tomorrow, 1 p.m. ET)

This one could go either way, as both teams have significant flaws. The Patriots are without Wes Welker and Randy Moss may be limited, plus their array of running backs all have some issues. The Ravens are facing some injury issues of their own, but their defence is better. I'm not sure I trust Joe Flacco, but I love the Ravens' rushing attack of Ray Rice and Willis McGahee, so I'm taking them here.

Packers at Cardinals (tomorrow, 4:30 p.m. ET)

Both of these teams are pass-wacky and have issues running the ball and protecting the quarterback. However, they both have great quarterbacks and receivers. The Packers have been pretty hot lately, and Aaron Rodgers has been more consistent than Kurt Warner. I also like their defence better, so I'm going with them here.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

CIS: Paul James leaves York

It's a sad day for CIS soccer. I have a full story on James' departure and its implications up over at The CIS Blog and The 24th Minute.

(Ski) Jumping the shark

It is a shame that the International Olympic Committee, the Vancouver Organizing Committee and the Canadian courts have denied female ski jumpers the chance to compete in the Olympics. In this day and age, it's ridiculous to hold a men-only Olympic event, especially when you've previously waived all the procedural and competitive elements you're citing as reasons. However, it's important to keep this in perspective; at the end of the day, it's a small number of people who don't have the chance to compete in one athletic competition. It's sad, but it's not a horrible tragedy. Thus, you probably shouldn't be comparing it to Hitler's treatment of Jews, especially if you're a prominent Jewish organization (talking to you, B'nai Brith Canada!).

Here's the offending passage in a B'nai Brith press release sent out Monday, as quoted by the National Post's Jonathan Kay (who called the organization to ensure this wasn't a hoax):

"The League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada, has called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC) to reconsider the continued exclusion of Women’s Ski Jumping from the upcoming Olympic Games … In a letter to John Furlong, CEO of VANOC, the League recalled the 1936 Berlin Olympics when the OIC turned a blind eye to Hitler’s fascist regime, which was even then implementing discriminatory policies against Jews that impacted Games that year. The League asks the OIC and the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC) to focus on its policies and practices relating to discrimination, 'and that includes eliminating discrimination against women now, just as it should have included resistance to discrimination against Jews then.'"

I'm no defender of the Olympics, and they certainly have a troubled past. The IOC deserves a lot of criticism for how they've acted historically, and the 1936 Berlin Games have to be placed right at the top of the list of their blunders (except for that torch relay thing! That's totally cool!). However, comparing the present-day treatment of women ski jumpers to Hitler's treatment of Jews is ridiculous and insulting, and it's an unfortunate application of Godwin's Law
. The use of reductio ad Hitlerum has become so widespread that it's begun to trivialize the Holocaust. B'nai Brith should be the last group that wants that, so I'd encourage them to avoid these ridiculous comparisons in the future. As Kay points out above, this is just jumping the shark.