Odds and Ends Again

XFL

The XFL, in its most recent incarnation as the NFL-wannabe, has finished the first two weeks of it’s fledgling season, and if crowd size is any indication, the X in XFL may well stand for extinct, so paltry are the attendance numbers.

In Tampa, the local entrant, the Tampa Vipers, averaged 17,000, compared to the NFL Tampa Bay Bucs, not exactly a model of gridiron majesty, which sees three to four times that amount come autumn. So, who knows, maybe there is room for another flailing football franchise in Florida.

The league, filling the three-month sports void between the Super Bowl finishing and MLB starting, plus the winding down of both the NHL and the NBA, will have to do better in that small window of time to get to year two, unless former wrestling guru and current XFL owner Vince McMahon has a ton of money to waste, and he may well have.

A major difference in the two leagues: the 40 seconds the NFL gets to snap the ball has been lowered  to 25 seconds in the XFL.

With all the shifting and men in motion and quarterbacks changing plays based on defensive positioning, the  XFL will have to do in 25 seconds what the NFL barely does in 40. That’s asking a lot.

I can see receivers heading upfield yelling to their coaches on the sideline, “Hey, coach! What’s my route again?”

Or a befuddled offensive lineman seeking confirmation from a fellow leviathan, blurting out, “I block 73. Who you gonna block?”

I mean, we’re not exactly talking about high achievers on the SAT’s here, are we?

Hockey EBUGS

For the second time in two years, a third string NHL goalie was called into action when both net minders were hurt during action. Rules state that a reserve goalie must be onsite to aid either team, but not suited up until needed. They are reverently known as EBUGS. (Emergency Back Up Goalies.)

Last year it was Chicago Blackhawk reserve Scott Foster who stopped seven shots in securing a Chicago win over the Winnipeg Jets before returning to his day job as an accountant, and his nighttime avocation as a goalie for a Windy City bar team named “Johnnie’s Ice House.”

This past week saw 42 year-old David Ayres get his first NHL win in subbing for the Carolina Hurricanes in a win over the Maple Leafs, in Toronto. It was the first competition for Ayres since 2015 when he played his final game for the Norwood Vipers of the Allan Cup Hockey League, allowing 11 goals on 46 shots in a 14-4 defeat at the hands of the Stoney Creek Generals.

That outing ruined Ayres’ chance at NHL play, but undaunted, he continued to drive the Zamboni for the Maple Leafs, and acted as their reserve goalie, hoping for a call up. He finally got it, albeit for Carolina, the first EBUG in NHL history to nail a win. You rock, Dave.

Sports Odds and Ends

Houston Astros Cheating

MLB decrees that stealing signs in baseball is legal as long as it isn’t aided by the use of technology. It has been going on forever.

Runners on second base or coaches on either first or third get a view of the catcher signaling the pitcher to throw certain types of pitches by putting a different number of fingers down low over the plate.

Coded speech by a base coach, or number of steps the runner takes away from second base, alerts the batter as to what should be expected.

Houston, however, by using technology to transmit the type of pitch coming, went way outside the lines when it used a camera in the center field bleachers to transmit pictures of the catcher to a television set in their dugout, prompting a player to hit a garbage can with a bat, once for a fast ball, twice for a curve, etc., giving new meaning to the term “designated hitter.”

MLB action was swift, correctly firing the field manager and the General Manager of Houston. Field managers Alex Cora of the Red Sox and Carlos Beltran of the Mets, both former Astros in 2017, also parted ways with their respective teams.

There had been talk that Houston had been cheating in 2017 when the Astros had beaten the Yankees in the post season, four games to three, losing all three games at Yankee Stadium but winning all four games in Houston.

Pizza Hut Basketball

West Chester U. freshman Jack Lavery’s name was chosen just before halftime of a home game last week, giving him the opportunity to make four different shots within twenty-five seconds, and in doing so collect $10,000. He nailed the lay-up, netted the free throw, hit the jumper, the clock ticking down all the while with the crowd screaming, but missed the half court shot.

The public address announcer, unaware of the rules, yelled to him to retrieve the ball, a scant four seconds still remaining. Jack raced, got and launched the ball on its way to the basket from half-court, just beating the buzzer and getting nuthin’ but net! But wait…..there’s more. Rules called for only four shots, no more. It had taken Jack five shots. Close but no cigar!

Next day, up steps Pizza Hut stating not only are they going to give Jack the $10,000, but sweetening the pot even more by giving him free pizzas for a year. If I know my college kids, it’s likely to cost Pizza Hut twice the $10,000 by the time the year is up.

Baseball Rule Changes

MLB is mulling the adding of more teams to the post-season playoffs in 2022. The last thing baseball needs is more games. What they desperately need are faster games. Here are some suggestions under consideration.

1) Relief pitchers must face at least three batters.

2) In extra inning games, first batter up every half-inning starts at second base.

3) The batter must always have one foot in the batter’s box.

4 ) Eliminate the four-pitch intentional walk. Signal the batter to first.

Football is Over…Hockey is Here

Might I suggest, now that football is in hiatus, baseball months away, and basketball March Madness six weeks down the road, to those still yearning for sports excitement, consider NHL hockey.

Hockey combines speed, fluid movement, selflessness, team effort, and durability unlike any other professional sport.

In addition, it eschews the one thing I abhor about pro football…the glorification of a score, a catch, a tackle, immediately leading to a group selfie before the next play.

To those already hooked on hockey, I’ll be preaching to the choir. To others not so inclined, please hear me out.

Unlike baseball, where fans at games are often seen napping in late innings, hockey is light speed ahead of that summer salute to somnolence, with three twenty-minute periods, no timeouts, far fewer commercials, and movements on the ice that could be accurately compared to choreography. Just watch players Stamkos and Kucherov on a two-on-one breakaway.

NBA basketball has the greatest athletes playing professional sports but, truth be known, most games can be viewed by watching just the fourth quarter alone, so similar is the play of either team participating. That is both the charm and the curse of the NBA.

Every goal in hockey is super important, rare as they are. Players on offense and defense together form a scrum in front of goalies protecting their nets, creating a modern day Maginot Line similar to heroic World War I days.

Hockey players skate at breakneck speed not only during play but in getting on and off the ice after every three minutes of continual action. In comparison, studies show that in a typical NFL game, only eleven minutes of a three- hour game involve actual action. Soccer is even more tedious.

When a score is made in hockey, the entire team gathers quickly for a group hug and then hurriedly skates back to its bench, the scorer leading his line of teammates who fist bump with subs on the bench. The red light, having denoted said score, has already lifted all the home town fans flying up towards the rafters in jubilation.

Compare that to one or two players greeting the hitter of a home run in baseball, languidly waiting at home plate to limply shake his hand.

Unlike other sports, the puck in hockey dictates where every player should be on the ice.

Not so in other sports. In baseball, only a few of the players respond to a struck ball, and in most cases, nobody moves at all because the pitch is called a strike or a ball a majority of the time.

In hockey, there is no such down time, the players always skating at top speed, half of them doing it backwards. And in what other sport do spectators participate in the action by throwing their hats onto the ice in celebration of a player’s third goal in a game?

Even Babe Ruth, after hitting his third homer in a game, would only get an obligatory handshake from Lou Gehrig.

Drop that Puck!

Super Duper Super Bowl

There are three elements to any Super Bowl game. They are the game, the half-time show, and the commercials.

Grading all three elements of this latest NFL tribute to itself, I’d give the commercials a D-, the half time show a B+, and the game an A+.

Super quarterback Patrick Mahomes, as in other games this playoff run, turned a double digit deficit into a double digit win with his ability to get his Kansas City Chiefs to respond to his late game leadership.

Down 20-10 with six minutes remaining, he led his team to 21 consecutive points for the win, becoming the second youngest quarterback, at 24, to win a Super Bowl; Ben Roethelsberger was 23 when he won his first.

The first three quarters of the game had been plain vanilla, the first half ending in a 10-10 tie, the first time in 54 Super Bowls that has happened. The San Francisco 49ers, behind quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, moved ahead, 20-10, as the fourth period began-magic time for the talented Mr. Mahomes, which he responded to spectacularly for the win.

Every year since 1984 when Apple introduced their Macintosh computer by heaving a sledgehammer into a television screen before a raptured audience of robotic sycophants, commercials introducing new products have become a big part of the afternoon, bringing the price of such a 30-second pitch to $5,600,000. Some have been very humorous, some very informative, and others have bombed. Nearly all of this year’s fell into the latter category. An exception was Jack Ryan trying to explain to fellow Bostonians how his new car could ‘pock’ itself.

The kids, flag football boys and girls, running into the stadium to present the game ball to the referee, was both cute and inspiring.

I have never been an advocate of half-time shows at Super Bowls, from when college bands performed, through musical rap numbers I never understood, to spectacular special effects, moving people though the air like Mary Poppins wannabes.

But Jennifer Lopez is a different story. Older by two decades than any player on the field, and probably in better condition than all of them as well, she might just have gotten under that late game pass Garoppolo overthrew to a wide open receiver!

Born the last year the Chiefs had won a Super Bowl, the fifty-year-old Ms. Lopez led a cadre of male dancers through a 12 minute routine that had me exhausted while sitting in my lazy boy at home. She is a magnificent entertainer and her inclusion of her young daughter in her act was fantastic showmanship.

Tom Brady showed up in a Hulu commercial saying he wasn’t going anywhere. Spare me the drama!

It is clear, though, that a changing of the quarterback guard…..Mahomes, Baltimore’s LaMar Jackson, and Houston’s DeShaun Watson….will soon be replacing Brady, Rodgers, and Rivers, et. al., and become the elite signal callers of the NFL.

Hut One, Hut Two…

Grappling Garoppolo

This Sunday will mark the end of the NFL football season. The NFL will showcase its Super Bowl between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers.

Commencing the following week will be the XFL, a fledgling organization run by wrestling guru Vince McMahon, going up against the behemoth that is the 100 year old NFL. Like so many failed leagues before it, it may find the road to success bumpy and long.

Eschewing safety by encouraging kick returns, the XFL rules dictate that on kickoffs, the kicking team cannot run downfield until the returner has caught the ball. This, in the era of grievous head injuries, will result in more concussions as players will collide at much greater speed.

The local entry in the new league will be the Tampa Vipers. Let’s hope by season’s end they won’t be known as the Vindshield Vipers.

Patrick Mahomes of KC will go up against Jimmy  Garoppolo of San Fran. That’s a toss up but the West Coast running game is the superior of the two. I think I will pass on the half time extravaganza, leaving that to the millennials who the XFL will be counting on heavily to get them through their initial season.

Eli Manning, the Giants sixteen-season quarterback, retired last week, and in his usual Huck Finn manner, went out a winner. He will be a New York legend forever, given his two Super Bowl wins over the Patriots and his team-first attitude. The arc of Manning elite quarterbacking, begun with Archie in the 1970s at the University of Mississippi and later the Saints, and exhibited by his sons, Peyton and Eli, in college and the NFL, continues yet with grandson Arch, a freshman in high school, already being courted by college coaches.

Condolences to the families of Kobe Bryant and others killed in the horrible helicopter accident of this past Sunday morning. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families. It was a terrible mournful loss of nine lives.

One wonders how Derek Jeter was not a unanimous pick for the Hall of Fame, missing by just one vote. Baseball writers, those who vote for Hall of Fame inclusion, can be notoriously mean-spirited at times, recalling perhaps a single snub by a star. Jeter, to his credit, said he didn’t care to know who the single dissenter was….he was simply grateful to all those who did vote for him. Jeter, another class act.

It was interesting to watch Rafael Nadal beat Nick Kyrgios in the Australian Open. It sets up a great semi-final and final schedule this weekend with the three reigning stars, Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal, to determine number one in the world. A very interesting sidebar to the Nadal match was his accidentally hitting a ball girl on the side of her head with a wicked return. His immediate concern with her well being showed why he is so well respected in the game of tennis.

An American Football Hero

Reading the New York Times the other day, in yet another tribute to the 100th birthday of the NFL, I saw the picture below.

The photo shows the New York Giants in 1949 viewing film of a game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Giants.

Today, those players would be watching that replay on their sideline tablets, reviewing every movement with commentary from a position coach.

The two players on the screen are # 81, Elbie Nickel of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the only NFL player whose last name was United States currency, and the man defending him, Emlen Tunnell, # 45.

Two years earlier, Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in American sports by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, opening the door for all black athletes who would follow.

Tunnell, the first African-American to play for the Giants, can be clearly seen amongst his teammates watching the film.

Three years later when future legendary coach Tom Landry became an assistant coach with the Giants, he made Tunnell the linchpin of the defensive backfield, introducing the “Umbrella Defense” to the NFL and making him team captain.

“Emlen’s Gremlins,” the defensive backfield as it was famously named, enjoyed NFL championship seasons in the 1950s. Today, all successful teams start with a cadre of those speedy, stealthy, and serpentine defensive backs to form their team’s backbone.

When Vince Lombardi started the Green Bay Packers on their great run in the 1960s, he brought Tunnell on board, first as a player, then as a coach, winning five more NFL titles during that decade.

Tunnell had served in WWII in the Coast Guard, once rescuing two crew members from certain death after their Coast Guard cargo ship had been torpedoed in the South Pacific, for which, in 2011, he was posthumously awarded the Silver Lifesaving Medal.

After the war, he came back to finish college at Iowa. With two bucks in his pocket, he hitch-hiked his way from his home in Philadelphia to New York, asking for a tryout with the Giants. He got the job. He would go on to intercept 79 passes, a career record that stood throughout a generation of players who followed.

When Emlen became the first black player to enter the NFL Hall of Fame, the first person he thanked was that West Indian truck driver, delivering a load of bananas, who gave him that lift to New York for his tryout.

For his courage under fire, the USCG named its forty-fifth ‘Sentinel Class Cutter’ the “Emlen Tunnell” in dual tribute to the man and his football number.

Emlen Tunnell was a true pioneer in NFL football, an honored veteran of combat service, and a great American hero.

By copy of this Coach’s Corner, I am suggesting Giants management, in a homage to the concept of team play Tunnell exemplified so well, include after his name, presently on the ‘Ring of Honor’ at Giants Stadium, “Emlen’s Gremlins.”

And why not finally retire his number?

If the United States Coast Guard thought highly enough of him to launch a vessel bearing his name, you’d think the least the Giants could do is retire his # 45.

The NFL and College Football Playoff

After 17 weeks of hopes fulfilled and failures found, that long running hit, NFL Football, is pulling into the Conference stations for one more Sunday before the Super Bowl.

Network suits couldn’t be happier with three of the quarterbacks right out of Hollywood central casting and the fourth a step away from stardom.

State Farm is delirious with glee in that both Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, the two bellwethers of their entire stable of pitchmen, will both be playing this Sunday, Rodgers going up against Jimmy Garoppolo of San Francisco, while Mahomes of Kansas City will face off with the Tennessee tandem of quarterback Ryan Tannenhill and the human bulldozer of running backs, Derrick Henry, 245 lbs of forward moving concrete.

Tennessee versus Kansas City is a tough call. Mahomes brought his Chiefs back from the depths of despair, down 24-0 to Houston before rallying to win, 51-31, throwing five touchdown passes down the stretch. But in facing Henry, Kansas City will have it’s hands, arms, legs, shoulders and thoughts busy in stopping this man who has both sprinter speed and the thrust of a boxing heavyweight in mowing down opponents. Ignore him at your peril, Coach Andy Reid, you, the Wilford Brimley of aging NFL mentors. While watching Henry, also be aware of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, capable of sixty-yard bombs and short pin-point accuracy in his newly found role of starting quarterback.

The dream match up of the day will be the Packers versus the 49’ers. San Fran QB Garoppolo, after laboring for years as understudy to a guy named Brady, finally found his home in Cable Car City where he has been nothing short of brilliant. The denizens of that great city have pined for too long to a return to the glory years of Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Bill Walsh.

But Rodgers is Rodgers. The HOF lock has been in top form of late. His late game passes for two first downs late against Seattle were clutch plays denying Russell Wilson and the Seahawks the ball and moving the Packers to the win.

The College Football Playoff

Joe Burrow of LSU leaves college football a true hero, capping off a brilliant senior season with both a Heisman Trophy and a title.

Burrow, a transfer from Ohio State to LSU, threw for sixty touchdowns this season with only six interceptions, while his team went 15-0 and won the National Championship.

His speech at the Heisman Award Dinner was warm and humble.

Clemson, behind quarterback Trevor Lawrence, went up early against LSU, building a ten-point lead before Burrow got going.

After overcoming a terrific his just before the half, Burrow threw the last of his five touchdowns early in the fourth quarter to seal the deal, 42-25 .

It might well have been the greatest exhibition of quarterback artistry in college championship football history.

An added note of pride on my part...My Minnesota Gophers finished in 10th place in the 2019 AP Poll.

Go, Gophers!

Gophers Win

My Minnesota Golden Gophers came into Tampa for the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day to play Auburn, which was coming off a win over perennial powerhouse Alabama. The Tigers were one score favorites over the Gophers.

The game itself was the culmination of a week of social festivities that were terrific. Old friends seen again, new friends made. Players and coaches a pleasure to talk to.

One highlight: I knew something about a player that he didn’t know I knew. As Gopher Carter Coughlin, # 45, came out of the locker room to practice, I introduced myself to him.

I told him I had played quarterback for the Gophers back in 1958 and was lucky enough to break the school record for passing yardage in a game. “Let me tell you how that happened,” I said.

I described the play, a long pass of forty yards to our right end racing down the field who, despite double coverage, leaped up and wrestled the ball away from two defenders, the catch yardage allowing me to set the record. “And the guy who made that catch, sixty-two years ago, Carter, was your grandfather, Tom Moe!” He was floored! Go, Gophers!

At a social event, Mark Coyle, the Gopher Athletic Director, revealed the impressive statistic that the University of Minnesota, playing in the Power Five, comprised of the sixty-five top schools in the country, was the only school to have every single one of its athletic teams compile a winning record in 2019.

Go Gophers!

At another gathering of Gopher letter winners, stories were told by alumni, somewhat embellished at times, one might suspect, of daring-do of years ago. One theme was evident, though…..could the Gophers beat one of the perennially tough teams out of the SEC?

I got to witness a couple of practice sessions courtesy of our head coach, P.J. Fleck. There must have been sixty or so players taking part in the practice.

With rap music blasting over the public address system, Fleck would occasionally interrupt, speaking through his hand-held microphone at mid-field, barking instructions that sent groups of players flying to new locations all over the field with military precision, nary a laggard in sight, the enthusiasm and sense of purpose of the players clearly evident.

He would occasionally yell out “78-78.” “If you win the turnover and time of possession battles, 78% of the time you’ll win the game!”

And, in the game with Auburn, that aphorism proved prescient. The Gophers overwhelmingly out-gained Auburn, 496 yards to 232, while winning the time of possession battle, a robust 38 minutes to 22.

Coach Fleck is the real deal. He also tried two trick plays. One resulted in a fourth down touchdown and the other gave the Gophers a first down late, enabling them to close out the game.

Game day was perfect Florida weather. An Auburn kick-off return for a touchdown early did not deter Minnesota. Both the running and passing games that had guided the Gophers to a ten-win regular season kicked in.

By game’s end, a 31-24 victory, Minnesota had accomplished all it had set out to do. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said as much after the game, stating “We were both outplayed and out coached!”

Go Gophers!

Two-thirds of the fans at the game were rooting loudly for the Gophers. It was a great day for the University, the football program, and the people of Minnesota who have waited so long for a return to football glory.

Go Gophers!

Pigskin Pronouncements

I think if a football player decides to sit out a bowl game because he doesn’t want to hurt his chances of making an NFL team, leaving his teammates behind, in the faint hope that he will make it in the pros, he is both nearsighted and selfish. It is the very antithesis of team play, a concept that played a huge role in getting his team, and him, to that  bowl game in the first place. Agents encouraging this type of action are scurrilous and self-serving. This is a terrible way to thank the school that gave you a wonderful education totally free.

I Love Julio Jones

Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons is arguably the greatest receiver in the NFL. Totally selfless, he runs perfect routes, always draws double coverage, and never makes goofy gestures after catching either a five yard gain or a fifty-yard touchdown. Of course he wouldn’t demonstrate. He went to Alabama. The Church of Bear Bryant would never allow that. In Sunday’s cliff hanger against the 49ers, he caught a pass on the half-yard-line with two seconds left and then mightily arched his body backwards to get the football over the plane of the goal line for the touchdown. This now sets up a great match between San Francisco and Seattle on the last Sunday of the season for the NFC # 1 seed, Russell Wilson against Jimmy Garoppolo in a winner take all contest.

Eli Bids Adieu

We may well have seen the end of the Eli Manning era as a New York Giants iconic hero–two Super Bowl wins over the Patriots–as he engineered a 36-20 win over the Miami Dolphins. The Manning legend will continue to grow, however, with Arch Manning, grandson to Archie, son of Cooper, and nephew to both Peyton and Eli, just completing his freshman year of high school where he threw for 2,400 yards and 32 touchdowns in the same New Orleans high school his uncles attended.

Lamar Jackson, ‘nuf said’

The Baltimore Ravens are Poe no more. Lamar has taken over the favorite son title from the noted poet and at midnight last Thursday it was not upon a midnight dreary that the Ravens sat atop the entire NFL at 12-2. Jackson has created a new quarterback template, running for 86 yards and throwing for five touchdowns in leaving the Jets wandering weak and weary. You can bet there will be a few RPO [Run Pass Option] quarterbacks high up on the NFL draft board next time around.

Referee Referendum

The NFL must get this new reviewable pass interference rule straightened out. So far this season, challenges by coaches have been successful only 13% of the time. The one things coaches know is pass interference when they see it. How ludicrous is holding downfield on a pass play not penalized when replays clearly show it happened but is not reviewable when pass interference is the challenge?

The Good Guy Award

After winning the Heisman on Saturday night, by the highest margin ever, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow used his acceptance speech to call attention to the poverty existent in his home town of Athens, Ohio. Social Media then took over, raising over $300,000 by Monday evening to aid those citizens. Great for you, Joe. You have set the bar extremely high.

Happy Holidays to all!  

The Grass “IS” Always Greener

All but one quarterback in the College Football Playoffs played for a different school last year than his present one.

Justin Fields went from Georgia to Ohio State. Joe Burrow went from Ohio State to LSU. Jalen Hurts went from Alabama to Oklahoma. Trevor Lawrence at Clemson is the only signal caller of the four to have remained at his original school.

Time was, a kid stayed at his original school of choice through all four years, often waiting for his turn to start.

All that changed when the NCAA, bowing to pressure, granted a “Transfer Portal” allowing players to put their names on a list to consider transferring to another school, 80% of the time being able, with a lawyer’s assistance, to have the one-year waiting rule to play waived, heretofore in existence for sixty-five years.

It became Christmas Day for the two dozen or so top second string quarterbacks who switched schools this past season, three of whom have now reached the promised land to play for the National Championship.

I am old enough to remember when loyalty counted, yet young enough to recognize the present millennial search for “Look at me, I am something special” persona of so many people.

I get it. Through social media, everything is all about “me!” I am whistling in the dark expressing my desire for team play over individual goals.

I can also understand the fans’ joy at their school nabbing one of these quarterbacks to fill a roster spot while moving them into contention for glory.

Sportsmanship Personified

When Kansas City journeyed to Foxboro on Sunday, everybody was anxious to see arguably the two best quarterbacks in the NFL go at it for home field advantage in the upcoming playoffs. The Pats’ Tom Brady, perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time, against last year’s NFL MVP, Patrick Mahomes. In a terrific game, it came down to the last play in regulation when a short Brady pass on fourth and goal inside the ten yard line, if completed into the end zone, would have caused overtime. Tough loss for New England. In the meeting on the field after the game, Brady could be seen seeking out Mahomes, finally finding him to shake his hand and congratulate him on his win, signaling perhaps the passing of the torch?

Nostalgia Reigns

What in the name of Vince Lombardi do retired NFL players have to do with the Yellow Vests rioting in Paris?

They are both protesting the inequities in pension benefits, the French because a scheme put in place after WW II is no longer sustainable, while NFL retirees starting careers at approximately that same time, have made do with a pittance from a now $15 billion dollar annual business that those retirees made into the cash cow it has become.

Thousands of NFL players went on strike in 1982 and 1987 to pursue and, eventually, win free agency for future generations of players. Yet today, the sole retirement benefit for these pioneers is a pension check that is less than what today’s average NFL center makes per snap. (NYT)

That simply isn’t fair. A new bargaining agreement between the owners and players should mitigate that gap. If not, don’t be surprised to see NFL greats Jim Brown, Dave Casper, Paul Warfield, and Franco Harris, et. al., in yellow vests protesting at the Super Bowl.

QB Eyes

Time was, this now aging — yet still engaged — football enthusiast had eyes that could spot receivers in full stride at fifty yards.

A childhood stickball accident required me to wear glasses. Different decades, different lenses, the right eye always doing double duty to help the compromised left one.

I never tried contact lenses but occasionally I’d wear glasses under my helmet. They were cumbersome and soon discarded.

On a related issue, I recently underwent cataract surgery when street signs became too blurry. A simple procedure became a game changer and I now see better than ever.

As often, when something good happens, something else lessens the joy. In my case it was the follow-up eye exam to check things out.

This specific test measured peripheral vision. To check both eyes, twenty minutes of staring straight ahead at a yellow light is required, first with the left eye, and then the right, all the while using a hand held device to click each time you see a white flash somewhere on the screen.

It is a nerve racking, annoying procedure, labeled “Confrontational Peripheral Testing” by the medical community itself. I found it extremely tedious and couldn’t wait for it to end.

The second time I took the exam, I tried a different approach. Remembering gridiron principles of so long ago, I utilized some of them and improvised my own way to speed up the test and achieve a perfect score, further validation that what I learned in college had proved helpful in life.

The little yellow light one must look at became any safety I ever played against. Quarterbacks are taught to always lock the safety in place with their eyes so he can’t get a jump on the side you are going to throw to. Brees is great at this locking action.

Now that I owned the little yellow safety, I could concentrate on the intermittent white flashes popping up all over the screen, now my private football field.

Each time a flash occurred, I’d notice the location and assign a route that ended at that spot. For instance, a flashing light, high left, would have been a post corner route. [Click!]

A flash to my right, halfway up the screen, was a sideline route.  [Click!] 

Another flash in front of and in line with the yellow safety was a curl route. [Click!]

It got so I couldn’t wait for the next route to silently note and [Click!]

Post, deep, screen, hook, fade, all the routes came quickly to me.

Even the names of the receivers I had thrown those routes to surfaced and I spoke softly to them with each click…Chorske, Moe, Gehring, Kauth, Lindblom, Friend, Soltis, Schultz, McFeely….

What had been a chore became fun. The time flew by.

Hut One, Hut Two…

Unforgivable Football Conduct

Coaches teach teams to assiduously avoid penalties because they, more than any other act, define a team’s culture. Teams seldom succeed long range if they are negligent in avoiding penalties because often a call will lead to an opponent’s advantage, turning the tide of victory.

The Cleveland Browns are the poster child for questionable play, leading the NFL in penalty yardage with an aggregate total of 882 yards, or nearly ten yards per penalty. Green Bay, conversely, leading their division, has been penalized 468 yards.

There are five-yard minor non-contact penalties such as offside or backfield in motion, and ten-yard or more penalties for more egregious contact calls such as roughing the passer, unnecessary roughing, holding, or targeting with your helmet when tackling.

You can monitor a team’s discipline as the average distance they are penalized approaches ten yards per call. The higher that number, the lesser the discipline, and the certainty of losing becomes far greater. Over ten yards shows a strong lack of discipline.

Green Bay is nearly 50% better behaved, penalty wise, than Cleveland, having been penalized only half the yardage the Browns have.

Last week in a game against Pittsburgh, Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Myles Garrett, a first round draft pick, inexplicably wrestled the helmet off the head of the Steeler quarterback, Mason Rudolph, hitting him in the head with the very same object that has caused such dismay in the NFL related to CTE, or concussions, leading to lifelong disability and long term disassociation with reality in so many cases, including suicide.

Garrett had already been penalized and fined for errant behavior on the field, being fined a total of $52,000 for three instances of illegal roughing of the quarterback in an early season Jets’ game.

He has been suspended indefinitely for his hitting Rudolph. In my opinion, he has surrendered his right to play in any future NFL game.

With ten percent fewer boys playing high school football than a decade ago, allowing him back would send a terrible message that it is okay to accept his actions as anything approaching normal.

If the Cleveland Browns are going to regain their once storied reputation as a model football operation, they must first get their house in order regarding discipline. Four and six with six games to go, they have a shot at .500 under quarterback Baker Mayfield. Reducing penalties must be the road map they should now pursue to evolve into a solid football team.

Two Weeks To Go 

The college picture is still blurred as the Big Ten enters week ten. Penn State plays Ohio State to clarify who wins the Big Ten East. A Nittany Lion win would likely give them the title. In the Big Ten West, Minnesota, rebounding from a 23-19 loss to Iowa, travels to Northwestern. The Gophers title chances may well hinge on their season ending game against Wisconsin at home on November 30th.

Hut One, Hut Two.

Football and The Music Man

The football Gophers in 1956 came into their season ending game against Iowa needing a win to get to the Rose Bowl. In a hard fought battle, the Hawkeyes prevailed, 7-0. In the next five years, coach Murray Warmath would go to that granddaddy of all bowl games twice, garnering a national championship along the way.

The Gophers have an opportunity to avenge that tough loss of so many years ago this Saturday when they go to Iowa City, up by two games in the Big Ten West with three games to play. A win and a Wisconsin loss would deliver that championship.

I remember coming home for Christmas that year and seeing a Broadway play called “The Music Man.” It was a musical…I always liked musicals rather than drama because I thought the 110% effort the cast showed eight times a week was similar to what good football teams must do to be successful….

The story centered upon a sly salesman who travels the Midwest of a hundred years ago, convincing schools to buy musical instruments so they can have a band better than the next town. But this guy, Professor Harold Hill, never delivers on his promise. Rather he takes the money and skips town.

It isn’t until he gets to River City, Iowa, that he finds his match in the town librarian, Marian. He doesn’t know one musical note from another, but the town needs something to unite them and he provides that with the band.

The University of Minnesota hired a new coach three years ago that hardly anybody had ever heard of by the name of PJ Fleck. He came into Minnesota like the “Music Man,” promising to make the football program great again, if only everybody would come along with him and his shtick as he molded young men into a team that would make Minnesotans ever prouder of their Gophers.

Combining the mantras of the century old Gopher chant of ‘Ski-U-Mah’ with his ‘Row The Boat’, and two improving seasons, people began to believe.

This year he is taking his band of players back to Iowa to see if he can advance further towards that Big Ten West championship. After their historic upset of Penn State last Saturday, the Gophers find themselves number eight in the College Football rankings.

What a fantastic win the Penn State game was for the Gophers. What I like so much about them is they never seem to be out of position on defense and the skill players all await their turn to shine. They are truly a team. The offensive linemen are all on the same page. Fleck prepares them well.

This Music Man isn’t going to skip town. Wisely, the University has extended his contract for another six years. I don’t know what this week or the remainder of the season will bring. But the seats at the new stadium are filled with the expectation that good football will be enjoyed there.

Coaching Behavior

I get the importance of the (6) Florida vs (8) Georgia game played last week. The winner of the game between these two ranked SEC teams would strengthen their resume in getting into the College Football Playoffs.

Florida coach Dan Mullen tried everything but couldn’t stop Bulldog quarterback Jake Fromm, arguably the best quarterback in college football. Fromm moved the chains on 9 of 18 third down situations while the Gators were only 2 of 9. The result of that poor Florida performance had the Gator defense on the field for up to 36 more snaps and 12 more minutes. That’s very tiring.

In getting Florida fans to forget about the great success of former coaches Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, Mullen is making Florida faithful hopeful, if not convinced, with a 17-5 two year record.

In the fourth period, Mullen went ballistic on assistant Billy Gonzales, whose job is to make sure the right players are on the field when it’s Florida’s ball. Gonzales erred late with Georgia up, 24-10. Mullen had to burn a time out to get the players lined up correctly, and he unleashed anger and frustration on his assistant coach. I have never seen a coach do what he did to Gonzales, yelling and screaming and pointing at him. This is a big man’s sport with salaries such as Mullen’s $6,000,000 per year, if not the norm, not far from it. I get that. But Mullen should terminate Gonzales if he felt his mistake so egregious, not humiliate him in front of millions.

I witnessed Mullen’s post game press conference. After such a tough loss, he was calm and cooperative with the media, giving thoughtful and measured responses, nothing approaching his ranting and raving on the field, where Georgia won, 24-17.

The state of Florida is paying him a lot of taxpayer dollars. He should guide his conduct to show appreciation of that and concentrate on civility as well as X’s & O’s.

High School Bullies

Plainedge High School on Long Island, undefeated, was playing South Shore High School, also unbeaten. Plainedge went ahead, 61-13, in the fourth period. At every level of football I have ever played, in a situation like that, the coach ahead would have put in his subs to give them more experience. It accomplishes two things. It gives more boys the chance to play and it shows respect to the losing team.

The Nassau County Athletic Association has a rule that should a team win a game by forty-two points or more, the winning coach must appear before a committee and explain what he did to prevent this from happening.

The anemic reason he gave was he was afraid his opponent would catch up. He was suspended for one game.

Records showed no high school in Nassau County had ever come from that far back to win.

Any coach with that lack of empathy should be dismissed.

The answer is a running clock once a team is ahead by thirty-five points.

College Football Countdown

This weekend, all top five ranked teams have a week off, while other contenders, (6) Florida and (8) Georgia, play each other, having a chance, however slim, of moving up with a win. Oklahoma got bounced out of the top four this past Saturday with a surprise loss to Kansas State. After this weekend, on Tuesday next, the final four top ranked teams will be announced. With none of the present top four, LSU, Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State, playing, it would be next to impossible for any team to replace that order over this coming weekend.

It is the weekend of November 9th that the rubber truly meets the road. That day, LSU plays Alabama, Iowa plays Wisconsin, Minnesota entertains Penn State, and Baylor plays TCU. Fans in the state of Minnesota are hoping ESPN will choose to host their Game Day in Minneapolis, for the first time ever, in a showdown duel with (5) Penn State. That could be a tough sell to the network suits who might be eye-balling a (1) LSU vs (2) Alabama matchup that day.

Regardless of the network decisions, in the Big Ten West Division, if Minnesota eventually beats the winner of the Iowa-Wisconsin game, the Gophers will win the divisional title, regardless of what they do against Penn State and Northwestern during the final month of the season.

Present pigskin prognosticators are predicting Minnesota will be playing Texas A&M on New Year’s Day in Tampa’s Outback Bowl. If that prediction proves prescient, be prepared for a perfect day. I got carried away with alliteration there, didn’t I?

Contenders & Pretenders in the NFL

The NFL season is half over and the contenders and the pretenders are showing their colors. In the NFC East, the Cowboys and the Eagles are neck and neck for the title, while the Giants are rebuilding with quarterback Daniel Jones and the Redskins are, well, the Redskins.

It is going to be the Packers and the Vikings in the NFC North, down to the wire. I give Green Bay the edge because they have arguably the best quarterback in the game in Aaron Rodgers. If he is not the best QB, he is hands down the best commercial comedic pitchman in all of sports. As usual the Lions and the Bears will remain in the cellar, looking to climb up the steps, one by one, to reach the promised land.

New Orleans, thanks to Teddy Bridgewater for having held the fort for Drew Brees, remains three games up in the otherwise struggling NFL South.

In the NFL West, San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garaoppolo has all the opponents garoppoling (ouch) to catch him. Seattle and the Rams are in the chase, but Arizona with famed quarterback Kyler Murray is taking some tough hits while learning the pro game.

More on the AFC next week. Two names to remember…..Tom Brady and LaMar Jackson. And a tip of the Coach’s Corner Cap to Bill Belichick on win # 300.

Refs Have Yellow Fever

An NFL referee walked into the Commissioner’s office for his annual review. He was told that he had made far fewer penalty calls than other officials, stating, “We don’t need you out there if you’re not calling anything!” That was in 2009. The ref got the word, told his fellow refs, and the race was on.

Over the next decade, there was a 25.8% increase in the number of penalties called. The purist in me says that is simply men doing their job better. The doubter in me says the NFL knew all along that technology would allow split screen viewing of the penalty being reviewed, side by side with a money making commercial shown during said review.

Can you say Cha-Ching?

The average amount of actual game action is eleven minutes per game. How then do games last three hours? I think penalties and reviews of challenges are the time stealing culprits. Half-time takes up only twenty minutes, a third of that showing commercials, while the other two/thirds is inane jabbering and jousting by talking heads.

Penalties are easy picking for referees. There are now 357 NFL players who weigh at least 300 pounds, within spitting distance of each other on the line of scrimmage. On any given play, a majority of them could be charged with holding, face mask grabbing, unnecessary roughness, roughing the passer, blocking below the knees, jumping the count, or God forbid, taunting.

You want to hold on to your job? Make the requisite number of calls and your pension is secured. Speaking of which, the time has come when middle aged, out of shape, slow zebras should be put out to pasture.

 

Troy Aikman made an interesting observation last week, saying the reason so few pass interference challenges are reversed is because the bar has been set so high with that terrible non-call in the infamous Rams-Saints game last season being the standard by which challenges are now compared.

Ergo, only 15% of challenges are reversed. I predict the one-year trial on challenges to pass interference will not see a second season. Refs, in the booth upstairs or on the field, are a united bunch, not anxious to throw the flag on each other.

By the way, is it only a coincidence that former Cowboys Aikman and Tony Romo are the best announcers around? The Cowboys last Super Bowl was twenty-five-years ago. Maybe Jerry Jones should concentrate on franchising a string of Ted Baxter like “Famous Broadcaster Schools.” He sure has done well with his two former quarterbacks presently headlining the NFL airwaves with accuracy and humor.

Based upon this season’s first six games, we can expect to see a record 3,757 penalties called this year.

At the conclusion of every successful play, the first thing I look for is that yellow box in the lower right hand corner of the screen with the dreaded word FLAG in it. And, all too often, it’s annoyingly there.

Football Nicknames

The Dolphin is a lovely mammal that befriends little children and invites older people to ride them for fun. Abundant at aquariums, their friendly manner makes them the main attraction. Hardly what you think of when describing an NFL lineup of Lions, Tigers, and Bears, oh, my! Why would they ever play a team named the Seahawks, a fish eating bird with a cosmopolitan range of prey. Maybe that is why the Miami Dolphins have been under water all season, while the Seattle Seahawks have lost but once.

The University of Alabama, arguably the most successful team of the last three decades, is nicknamed The Crimson Tide, although they are far from any body of water, and their mascot is Big Al, an elephant. In 1907, red clad Alabama played in-state rival Auburn on a rain soaked sea of mud, hence the school nickname, Crimson Tide. It doesn’t seem to matter what we call them, they just continue to win.

The Akron Zips occasionally win a game against a better opponent, allowing the nickname “Zips” to remain in football conversations. The nickname does not reflect the speed of their players, but rather a 1927 product of the Akron based B.F. Goodrich Company, rubber overshoes called “Zippers,” later shortened to “Zips.” It has became the school’s mascot, one of only eight female mascots in the United States.

The Oklahoma Sooner nickname found its origin in a group of nefarious cheaters who, in the 1860’s, found a way to gobble up the best lands available under a Federal Land Grant Program. The Program announced that surveyors would be available on a certain afternoon to assist families to stake a claim in the new Oklahoma Territory. Pictures from that time show a long line of horses and wagons waiting for the bugle to blow at exactly 12:00 noon to start everybody moving forward. In a mad dash of dust, they headed ahead. To their dismay, all of the choice land sites had been already licensed to a bunch of men who had snuck in the night before to get their land. Those disreputable men became known as Sooners because they got there ahead of the farmers who played by the rules. The school’s fight song, “Boomer Sooner” pays homage to those miscreants.

The Purdue Boilermakers are so named because Purdue defeated Wabash College in 1891, 44-0. An account of the game in the Crawfordsville Daily Argus News of October 26, 1891 was headlined, “Slaughter of Innocents: Wabash Snowed Completely Under by the Burly Boiler Makers from Purdue.”

Purdue became known as the boilermakers the next year. Several of the local schools added to the boilermaker tradition by suggesting that Purdue was going up the Wabash River and hiring workers from the nearby railroad yards to play football. Purdue’s official mascot is a Locomotive, the Boilermaker Special. The Monon Railroad had its main locomotive shops in Lafayette, not far from campus. Do the math.

Student Athletes

At the suggestion of avid reader and University of Pennsylvania alumnus Dan Carricato, I spent Friday evening watching the televised Penn vs Dartmouth football game played in revered Franklin Field in Philadelphia.

It was like watching a long ago Friday night high school football game. That statement in no way denigrates the participants, but rather extols the earnestness and pride these Ivy Leaguers showed.

Respectful of the game and absent the foolish hijinks of college players that seem determined that the conclusion of every play requires a group picture of celebration, or the seemingly requisite arms in the air, pleading supplication from the nearest referee.

But for a instance of blown coverage early on and an errant throw by their passer late, the Quakers might well have carried the game to the final whistle.

The stands were sparsely filled but no less enthusiastic than 90,000 people filling Ohio State’s Big House, absent, though, the posturing for Instagram shots of each fan addressing his or her followers as influencers. Spare me that, please.

I will return to the game of 130 Power 5 Teams this week, but it was indeed a pleasant trip into what once was. Thanks, Dan.

The Governor of California has signed into law a rule, starting in 2023, that would prohibit universities and colleges in the state from denying payment to athletes in football and basketball for endorsements and use of their likenesses, and allows their retaining of an agent.

This is in stark contrast to what the NCAA has been fostering for generations, i.e., college athletics is an amateur sport, not a professional sport. This new law will open trial cases and defense of the status quo by both sides.

I am not pre-judging the case for either side, but I would like to point out some generalities pertaining to the law.

All states will be forced to follow California because the law encourages football players to try to get into schools in California because of the money.

Every year, 130 universities can offer 25 football scholarships each (3,250) to 170,000 high school football playing seniors. That equates to less than 2% of high school graduates getting football scholarships. The odds are fifty-to-one of getting a full ride to a major college team. Long odds, indeed.

Scholarship football players get a totally free college education, leading to a degree. They also have room, board, and books given to them. Little more than half of them will get a degree, the obtaining of which will return to them, according to Forbes Magazine, more than a million more dollars each during their working lifetime, without a nickel of school debt.

Students, on the other hand, attend classes, get degrees at a much higher percentage than athletes, hold part time jobs, but leave with tens of thousands of dollars in school loans.

A tip of the Coach’s Cap to my Minnesota Gophers sitting at 5-0 and ranked 25th in the Coaches Poll.

Way to go, guys!

Notable Football Notes

Rodgers vs Winston: Two quarterbacks changed roles last weekend.  Jameis Winston threw for nearly 400 yards and four scores in whomping defending NFC champion Rams, 55-40.  Aaron Rodgers had seven tries inside the Eagles ten-yard-line within the last five minutes to send the game into overtime, and failed. Those two games tightened both the NFC South and East Divisions.

Jones vs Haskins: in this year’s draft, the Giants could’ve picked either Daniel Jones or Dwayne Haskins. I thought Haskins was the better choice. Jones has proven me wrong. He is now 2-0 while Haskins has struggled, throwing three picks on Sunday.

Interesting Stat: Troy Aikman was chosen the best typist in all Oklahoma high schools in 1983.

Dog whisperers, horse whisperers, football whisperers. Just as people can better understand animals by talking to them, so too can sideline coaches inform, persuade, and gain the confidence of quarterbacks. The best football whisperer I have seen this year is Byron Leftwich of the Buccaneers. In the 17 seconds he has to talk to Jameis Winston before the quarterback’s ear piece can hear him no longer, he is constantly talking to Winston, telling him the play call, detailing who should be the primary and secondary receivers, whether to anticipate man or zone coverage. Winston is benefitting greatly from the coach’s tutelage, helping to hang 55 points on the Rams last week.

In Mack Brown’s return to college football, he had his Tarheels go for two against Clemson on the game’s final play. What did he have to lose? They make it and they’ll beat the number one team in the rankings. They don’t make it, they’ll get kudos for trying. They ended up missing, a final pass knocked down, but they achieved both goals. Clemson dropped to number two, behind Alabama, and North Carolina won a moral victory.

Quarterback Tanner Morgan of Minnesota was 21 of 22 for 386 yards and four touchdowns in beating Purdue, 38-31. Nobody in the 123 year history of the Big Ten Conference has ever reached that 95.5% level of efficiency, while throwing a minimum of twenty passes in a game.

How effective have coaches been in challenging pass interference calls? In the pre-season, only 5 of 50 challenges resulted in the call being reversed. In the first three weeks of the regular season, it was 7 of 23 that were overturned. Coaches are wary of challenging because if they are wrong they’ll use a time out they want to save for the end of the half or the game.

Two very important issues arose recently that could severely change college football. One is the state of California decreeing that all universities, public and private, cannot stop student/athletes from being compensated financially from endorsements or their image being used for commercial purposes.

The other issue is the University of Houston red-shirting a senior quarterback and wide receiver, saving them a year of eligibility while the coach recruits better linemen.

More on both of these issues in future Coach’s Corner.

Weekend Update QB Edition

For just the second time in his sixteen-year career, Eli Manning watched a Giants game from the sideline. The only other time was three seasons ago when the coach benched him in a move that ultimately cost the coach his job. Eli, as much revered in New York as Derek Jeter, won two Super Bowls against the arch rival Patriots, completing two miraculous passes to come from behind late to crush New England.

I must admit I thought the Giants were nuts to choose Daniel Jones, a quarterback from Duke, not exactly a hot bed of quarterbacks-the last one to go to the NFL from there being Sonny Jurgenson sixty-two years ago. I thought Dwayne Haskins of Ohio State was the best quarterback available. Now Haskins is riding the bench for the Redskins and Jones is starting and winning for the Giants. Go figure.

I was very impressed with Jameis Winston in the Bucs’ one point loss to the Giants on Sunday. He was calm in the pocket, his passes were brisk and on target, and his footwork seemed much improved. An interception notwithstanding, he looked like the quarterback the Bucs need to compete in the suddenly vulnerable NFC Southern Division.

In that Division, both Cam Newton of Carolina and Drew Brees of New Orleans are injured as their teams struggle to stay in the race. Teddy Bridgewater is holding the fort for the Saints until Brees returns in a month, beating the 2-0 Seahawks and Russell Wilson. Kyle Allen, subbing for Newton, came through for Carolina, throwing for four scores in beating Arizona.

In college play, #3 Georgia held off #7 Notre Dame in another battle of great quarterbacks, Ian Book for the Irish and Jake Fromm of the Bulldogs. Fromm did something I have never seen at any level of football.  Taking the long snap from the center and then spinning the pigskin in both hands, he surveyed the defensive secondary. Whether he can continue to throw that way in the NFL, where rushers are oak trees compared to the saplings in college football, remains to be seen.

Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa threw for five touchdowns in leading the Tide to a 49-7 thrashing of Southern Mississippi while the Bama quarterback who left Alabama to go to Oklahoma, Jalen Hurts, sits at 3-0 after the weekend off.

But nothing compares with the aerial circus that went on between Washington State and UCLA. The two quarterbacks combined to throw for 14 touchdown passes and 1,077 yards in a 67-63 game played in regulation time. Probably most sensational of all, UCLA trailed by 32 points in the second half before rallying for the win.

Half of the top ten teams in this week’s rankings come from the SEC, while Clemson leads the pack in first place once again.

Final note: Keep an eye on LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, who has completed 100 of 124 attempts for 17 touchdowns in just four games.

That’s accuracy!!!

NFL Unintended Consequences

Unintended consequences often follow good ideas. Take prohibition, for instance. Well intended people thought government control over the use of alcohol would curtail excessive drinking. Not so. Before long, crime-ridden schemes, including murder and excessive bootlegging, ensued. The Roaring Twenties saw havoc reign before prohibition ended.

In our often befuddling NFL, something less worrisome than the example above may be developing.

The egregious non-pass-nterference-call made in the L.A. Rams vs. New Orleans Saints game last season sent the Saints home while sending the Rams to the Super Bowl.

After that, the NFL Rules Committee dictated that pass interference calls, previously not reviewable, would indeed be subject to review in the NFL booth upstairs, each coach having three challenges during the game.

I think unintended consequences of this new rule have indeed been the result. I think a distinct advantage has been given to the offense at the expense of defensive secondary players.

I wanted to gauge what the effect the rule has had in this season’s first two games. I took all the quarterbacks who had a 2018 seasonal pass completion rate of 66% or better, along with their average yards gained per completion, and then compared those numbers with this season. The results were quite revealing.

Of the 15 quarterbacks who had at least a 66% completion rate in 2018, all but two increased their completion rate so far in 2019 by an average of 5.3%.

All but five had an increase in the average yards per completion as well.

Some quarterbacks have nearly gone off the charts in comparing last season with 2019. Mahomes went from 66% to 71.4%. Wilson went from 65.6% to 78.2%. Rodgers 62.3% to 77.6%. Lamar Jackson, in perhaps the greatest improvement of all, went from 58.4% to 71.9%. Prescott improved greatly from 67.6% to 82.3%.

What happened? The following scenario in the Steelers vs Seattle game this past Sunday is a clear example of unintended consequences.

Pittsburgh trailed by two in the fourth quarter and appeared to have momentum with the Seahawks facing a third-and-20. Russell Wilson threw a jump ball for Tyler Lockett and the pass fell incomplete. Coach Carroll challenged the play, claiming Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds interfered with Lockett. The 38-yard penalty was enforced after review.

Seattle coach Pete Carroll knew he had nothing to lose.

Incompletion-he punts on fourth down. Completion-he is in great field position. Interference-the odds are it benefits Carroll because offensive players are seldom called for pass interference downfield.

In addition, the defensive player doesn’t want to give the ref any cause for an interference call and therefore must be very conservative in his play, aiding the offense.

So, quarterbacks are passing more accurately and gaining more yards per completion. Have defensive backs gotten worse, or more likely, have they become more cautious guarding against interference calls? I think the latter.

I will revisit this trend to determine if it continues through the season.

The Armchair Quarterback

In my life I have been a back-up quarterback, a starting quarterback, a quarterback coach, and a critic of any and all quarterbacks as a reporter and in my present role of weekly blogger.

In the lexicon of football terms, an armchair quarterback is a know-it-all type, critical of coaching decisions and player mishaps. I confess to being part of that annoying group of second guessers.

I seldom go to games anymore but I do watch many on television. Heretofore, my viewing location has been either from home or my neighborhood sports bar. The watering hole existence, however, has become passé. It expired for me for the same reason streaming devices on my television have eliminated my desire to go to a movie theater. It’s just easier to watch in the comfort of home.

For less than what I would spend at my bar, I am watching any and all NFL games ensconced in my Lazy Boy, six feet away from my very large television, able to quickly switch from Aaron Rodgers to Patrick Mahomes to Tom Brady and not be forced to watch Jamesis Winston, as dictated by present NFL policy of allowing only the local team be seen from one’s home. I will no longer be victim of the yelling and screaming that accompanies a great play on any of ten games being shown at once, constantly turning my head to see what elicited said yelling from people at nearby tables.

So much of the time at the sports bar, young children, accompanied by a parent whose weekend it is to mind them, play the available arcade games, constantly annoying all present by their running from game to bartender to get change, yelling all the time.

The only conversation I’ll have now will be the occasional “yes,” respecting my wife’s entreaty to take out the garbage, or to confirm an approximate time for dinner. Life is good in the Lazy Boy.

Every game, and I mean “every” single game,  pro or college, everywhere, is now available for viewing, live or taped, to accommodate my viewing pleasure. This past Saturday I watched my Minnesota Gophers win a game in California, finally decided at 2:15 AM EST. It was time well spent.

I can, if I wish, watch the game in complete silence, avoiding the rabble babble of every announcer not named Romo. Tony has set the bar for incisive commentary, speaking in an even, nuanced delivery that is pleasant and informative. If I want to review the game’s highlights the next day, NFL Ticket allows me to do that as well. Should I wish to hear a referee’s soliloquy on why, or why not, pass interference, upon review from the press box, should be enforced, all I need do is un-tap the mute button. What could be easier?

Come halftime, I’ll use one of a dozen local apps to have food delivered within fifteen minutes.

Hut One, Hut Two, Hike That Ball…

Labor Day Weekend Sports

Bullies

College football began last weekend and the usual first game bullying took place as both Maryland and Penn State scored 79 points on Howard and Idaho, respectively, if not respectfully. High schools have a mercy rule where if a team is ahead by 35 points at the half, a running clock is used. The $1.5 million the losers got would have been a bit less embarrassing.

Tennis

All athletes in any sport could learn sportsmanship had they watched the US Open tennis match between Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka. Defending champion Osaka broke the fifteen-year-old Coco’s fantastic run and embraced her at the match’s end in addressing her opponent’s parents across the court on what a wonderful job they had done with their daughter. That was tear duct time!

Feel Good

A freshman walk-on kicker nailed a 56-yard field goal as time expired with the ball in flight as Nevada beat Purdue. Brandon Tanton received a full football scholarship immediately after the game as his team celebrated their 17-point comeback win. You earned it, Brandon.

Top College Teams

My top four college teams won big, solidifying my choices. Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Ohio State looked good-especially Oklahoma with superb players at every position. It’ll be interesting at post-season time if Alabama plays Oklahoma with former ‘Bama Quarterback Jalen Hurts now playing for the Sooners after having performed so effectively for Alabama for three years before transferring. Hurts was responsible for six touchdowns, three running and three passing, in the win over Houston.

Baseball

If the Division-leading Yankees and Twins meet in the post-season playoffs, MLB had better order a lot more baseballs. With a month to go in the regular season, Minnesota has already broken the regular season record for home runs, 267, set last year by the Yankees, with 269 dingers, while the Yankees this year have already hit 256. That’s 525 together with a month to go.

Surprise

The biggest upset of the week in college football was Georgia State’s 38-30 win over SEC Tennessee, the school’s first win over a Power Five school in its ten year existence. Last year, Georgia State had gone 2-10, losing its last seven games. This game was a good example of why small football schools play established schools to open the season-the chance of an upset plus the $1,000,000 guarantee that goes with playing the game.

A Word Of Caution

According to the National Federation of High School Association’s (NFHS) latest participation survey, released in late August, 11-player tackle football, numerically speaking, is solely responsible for the first decline in boys’ high school sports participation since 1988-89.

In 2018-19, year-over-year 11-player football participation by boys fell by 30,829, or 3%, from 1,036,842 to 1,006,013. Many factors are the cause. Fear of concussions is the most noted. Safety must be continually addressed for high school football to survive.

Andrew Luck Quits

In 1984, in the dead of night, then Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay backed up ten Mayflower moving vans to that beloved team’s locker room and whisked away forever the memory of their great quarterback, Johnny Unitas. The trucks got on the Interstate and moved the team to Indianapolis.

What goes around, comes around.

This past Saturday, Irsay’s son and present owner, Jim, at an impromptu press conference, announced that the team’s quarterback, Andrew Luck, arguably among the premier NFL quarterbacks, had decided to retire, less than two weeks before the season opener.

Luck has had a very productive six year career with the Colts, having been selected to play in the Pro Bowl in four of those seasons. Injuries have sidelined him often and he thought it best to think of his future safety and retire at twenty-nine, while other great quarterbacks have played well into their thirties. Stunned Colts fans, upon hearing the news, soundly booed Luck upon his going to the locker room during last weekend’s game.

During his announcement, Luck said he was tired of having football injuries direct the way his life was going and he therefore decided to give up playing the game. I feel sure we will see the articulate Stanford graduate in the broadcasting booth next season.

The effect his retirement will have on the game will be interesting to follow. Other NFL players have retired early as well. Patriots tight end Ron Gronkowski retired in March at thirty.

It is interesting to note that participation by boys in high school football has declined by 10% in the past decade.

Parents are justifiably worried by the occurrence of CTE (concussions) having a life long effect on football players in tackle football. All levels of participation, from Pop Warner boys leagues to the NFL, have instituted rules attempting to mitigate against injuries, but football remains a sport where injuries are clearly inherent.

In the NFL, only half the players have graduated from college. The half that did not have nothing to fall back on when their playing days are over. Ergo, they keep playing until age or injury dictates their retirement.

By the time they get to the NFL, they will have played probably ten years of tackle football, sustaining hits all the time.

College football has already begun. The NFL begins play a week from Sunday. In less than two weeks, 17,000 high schools, 778 colleges, and 32 NFL teams will be immersed in football games.

For six months, the premier attraction on television will be football with millions glued to their televisions watching the action unfold. The sport has captured America’s collective psyche.

One less player will become one of the watchers. He is smart to do so. Andrew Luck will look forward to his being free from present and future injuries. The statement he is making will reverberate through the football establishment.

All Indianapolis Colts fans who booed Andrew Luck last weekend should have their season tickets revoked.

Home Field Advantage

In professional sports, just how important is the home field advantage in the post-season? It depends on the sport, ranging from 73% all the way down to 51%.

In college, the home field advantage meant a lot. We went to a hotel the night before the game, had position breakdown meetings, saw a movie in the hotel ballroom, usually Westerns to get us in a combative mood, I always assumed. Next morning, taping by the trainers, followed by a short “assuming game face” bus ride to the stadium. Dressing for the game by 1:30, we were eager to hear the tumultuous greeting our fans would give us as we exited the locker room. Cheers counted for a lot.

On the road, entirely different. The coach would usually take us to the field on Friday just to get a feel for what it was like. I don’t remember having movies. I do remember that once the game started, the silence of the crowd when we scored was the sweetest non-sound I ever heard.

Professional sports are no different. To spell it out in one spot, here are the percentages of postseason matchups won by home teams in each of the four major sports over the past 10 seasons, listed in order of most to least:

  • NBA: 73 percent
  • NHL: 59 percent
  • NFL: 59 percent
  • MLB: 51 percent

Why the vast difference? In MLB, the percentage difference is hardly noticeable at 51%. Baseball fans wait for something to happen and then they cheer. It is the nature of the game, fans in a pastoral mood, cheering only when something is accomplished.

From 1934, the year of the first All-Star Game, until 2003, the team with the best regular season record was the home team for the World Series.

From 2004 through 2017, the league winner of the All -Star Game became the World Series home team. Why they did away with that, I’ll never know. Players and fans loved it.

In the other three sports, loud cheering takes place as scoring is anticipated.

In the NBA, with just five players, just one or two players can make the difference between losing and winning. Upsets are seldom seen in the NBA. Barring injuries, good teams are more likely to become dynasties than flashes in the pan. Home NBA games are sold out with very fiery fans close by the play. Visitors seldom get seats. It is an extremely friendly, noisy atmosphere with arguably the world’s best athletes participating.

Hockey and football at 59% is understandable. The ultimate goal of each game, scoring a touchdown or a goal, is accomplished through clearly seen and appreciated team effort, resulting in raucous activity by home crowds cheering long and loud as they anticipate a score coming, a feeling players love and respond to.

The home field advantage in all playoff sports is clearly spectator driven, least of all in MLB, and most of all in the NBA.

Two Bits, Four Bits, Six Bits, A Dollar! Pass Interference? Stand Up And Holler!

The 2019 NFL season is less than a month away with a new rule mandating that pass interference be a reviewable penalty for the first time.

And, it’s about time. For years, defensive backs have gotten away with murder, pushing, shoving, holding and generally hindering receivers from catching passes.

Now pass interference calls will be judged from upstairs if challenged. Defensive backs hate the new rule as much as bank robbers hate CCTV.

If the new rule had been in effect last season, the Saints would’ve gone to the Super Bowl rather than the Rams. The Ram defensive back, clobbering, pushing, and slugging the defenseless Saints receiver is clearly visible.

Every ref swallowed his whistle on the play. So egregious was the call, they all should have been made to receive immediate cataract surgery.

I’ve been searching for years to determine if what I believe to be true really is: i.e., most pass interference calls late in football games favor the home team, albeit not in  the Saints game as described above.

It has been shown in baseball that incorrect ball and strike calls late in games favor home teams. Two Franklin and Marshall students reviewed thousands of strike calls on video review of MLB games. It was determined most bad calls indeed favored the home teams, late in games.

I recall playing defensive back in college when a receiver faked me, catching me flat footed. The only thing I could do was grab him twenty yards downfield lest he’d make a touchdown reception. Luckily it was a home game and I got away with it.

I can’t really blame defensive backs from hating this new rule, either. Receivers have become very adept at feigning interference by defensive players. They immediately turn and throw an imaginary flag in the direction of the nearest ref, claiming interference. They often get away with it, especially late in games, on their home fields.

Refs are human, or so they say. I would question that. Those stripes they wear make them institutionally ready for the slammer, for denying, as they did, the Saints a shot at that Super Bowl. Perhaps even in solitary confinement!

A few years ago, the NFL dictated that all touchdowns would be reviewed from upstairs to determine if the ball did indeed cross the goal line, and nothing else.

To that point, I wish the NFL would make a foul being seen on such  a touchdown review deemed enforceable, which is now not the case.

When a receiver, illegally pushing off a defender, unseen by a ref, turns to make a catch in the end zone and scores a touchdown, how can the score be awarded when a foul, clearly seen in review, led to its happening?

A result of this new rule will be even longer games, already averaging 3 hours and 12 minutes, although only 11 minutes of that time is the ball actually in play.

Look for new commercials to fill the air during reviews, adding further revenue to the present $15-billion-per-year-NFL, looking to break $25-billion by 2027.

Best Sports Movie Quotes Ever

Rocky: “All I wanna do is go the distance.” In “Rocky” Rocky Balboa, (Sylvester Stallone) a loser in the eyes of all, expresses to his manager his singular goal in boxing, a perfect metaphor for his life of despair. It sets the stage for the fighter we would all root for in four sequels down through the years.

Field of Dreams: “Hey, dad, you wanna’ have a catch?” The climax to an inspiring story of Ray Kinsella, (Kevin Costner) searching for a father he never really knew. A sports story that had something for all of us. When he asked his father at film’s end to have that catch, standing on that idyllic ball field Ray had built in beautiful Iowa farm country, there wasn’t a dry eye in the theater. Screen legends Burt Lancaster and James Earl Jones added a beautiful tone of guidance throughout the film.

The Natural: Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) loved playing baseball growing up but a chance meeting with a deranged woman who shoots him made his wish for a baseball life but a lingering hope. Years later, a much older Hobbs got another shot at the Major Leagues. The team’s manager couldn’t believe Roy’s hitting prowess in his tryout, asking, “Hobbs, where have you been?” Roy’s answer, “I kinda’ got sidelined along the way,” had us all rooting for success both in baseball and life.

Seabiscuit: “You know, everyone thinks we got this broken down horse and fixed him, but we didn’t. He fixed us. Every one of us. And I guess in a way, we fixed each other, too.” Three men, an owner, a trainer, and a jockey, all at loose ends in their lives, see opportunity in connecting to an ungainly animal in which they learn to love each other and the horse as well. The racing scenes are the best ever filmed.

Miracle On Ice: “You were born to be hockey players, every one of you!” Coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) talking to his team of college kids meeting the mighty Soviets in the 1980 Olympics as decided underdogs. His speech brought all those young men together to record perhaps the greatest upset in American sports history, a victory for all Americans badly in need of a win during the Cold War.

Hoosiers:  Failed college coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) finds himself coaching a high school basketball team in a small Indiana town in the 1950s, trying to mold a group of boys into a team. His star player quits the team and his season goes bad quickly. He finally enlists the town drunk, (Dennis Hopper) father of one of his players, to be his assistant coach. Redemption for all occurs when Hickory High wins the Indiana state championship, bringing pride to a once doubtful but now grateful community.

As the film ends, Hackman’s voice can be heard echoing in an empty gym as the camera closes in on the team picture hanging on the wall, saying, “I love you guys.”

Good News, Bad News

Bad News

The NFL is contemplating going from sixteen to eighteen games in 2020. Here’s the catch: No player may appear in more than sixteen games during the season.

First casualty will be fantasy football (FFB). Keeping up with all the permutations necessary to field a representative team each week will be impossible. What FFB coach in his/her right mind would sit Patrick Mahomes on the last day of the season with a Division or Conference title at stake? No one!

The NFL Kansas City Chiefs wouldn’t do that, would they? Despite the tremendous interest millennials show by playing FFB, concurrently building greater fan interest in the NFL, the NFL is throwing FFB and its millions of players under the bus. The only reason the NFL is doing this is to create two more weeks of football, albeit with a cadre of backups playing, in order to bring in more money to a $14 billion a year business.

The question to be asked of NFL suits is, “Why should faithful viewers be forced to accept an inferior product?”

It would be like going to a Broadway show and five minutes before the curtain goes up, an offstage voice intones, “Ladies and gentlemen, your attention, please. In tonight’s presentation of ‘Hamilton’ the role of Alexander Hamilton, normally played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, will be played jointly by Larry, Curly and Moe. Thank you and enjoy the show.”

Good News

The British Open was played this past weekend and what a thrill it was to watch Shane Lowry fight his way through rain and wind, every shot fraught with potential disaster.

Golf, unlike tennis, pits people not playing one another, but playing against themselves, trying diligently to beat the best round of golf they have ever played.

In tennis, the response to opponents’ shots is engineered to catch them off guard or to position them at a disadvantage. Tennis decisions are made in the blink of an eye.

Golf, on the other hand, is not. Players scope  the water hazards, the wind, the spectators, the lie of the green, the locations of the sand traps, to line up every shot.

This British Open had all the elements of greatness. The weather was brutal, and Shane Lowry, the 32-year-old Irishman who had missed the cut in three previous British Opens, last year sitting in his car as he missed the cut again at a fourth try, wondering if he’d ever be good enough to win it.

It was the first British Open played in Northern Ireland in 68 years. Every other one had been played in either England or Scotland.

The wind was relentless for much of the day. Lowry, the home town favorite, made his move early with three birdies in a four-hole stretch through the par-5 seventh that boosted his lead to six. He never lost that lead.

His hugging his wife and daughter at the 18th hole was a photo for the ages, ending a great day for golf.

How to Rate an NFL Quarterback

In 1936, Eldon Wonderlic created a pre-employment test to measure general cognitive ability in areas of math, vocabulary and reasoning. It contained fifty questions and applicants had twelve minutes to complete the test. It was used as a means of screening applicants for positions in the business world.

In 1975, Tom Landry, the coach of the Dallas Cowboys, began using the test to determine which players should be drafted according to how well they did on the test. The NFL still uses it.

The questions weren’t difficult but the twelve minute time limit proved troublesome for many candidates. Landry surmised quarterbacks needed quick decision-making skills more than any other position, although the only NFL player to get all fifty right in the allotted time was Pat McInally, a punter, no less, from Harvard, no less, whose only on-field decision was which foot to use.

There are two things a quarterback must do to be successful. The first is throw touchdown passes and the second is to avoid throwing interceptions. The ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions is an important stat used to measure an NFL quarterback’s value to his team. When you add in the score of his Wonderlic Test, (WT), some surprises surface.

For instance, Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw is the ultimate outlier, career-wise having thrown 212 touchdown passes against 210 interceptions, a very poor QB ratio of 1:1. He also scored a dismal 15 on the WT. He did however, blow the WT out of the water, winning four Super Bowls on his way to the NFL Hall of Fame.

Conversely, journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (also a Harvard grad) had a nearly perfect WT score of 48, but a poor QB ratio of 1.28, and has never won a Super Bowl.

Interesting to note that the highest average score by position was offensive tackle at 38. Quarterbacks averaged 24. Yet I find it difficult to imagine a burly behemoth telling Brett Favre (aka the John Wayne of QBs) to change the play he just called in the huddle.

Four of the 32 quarterbacks I studied, who had multiple Super Bowl wins, (Jim Plunkett, Bob Griese, Roger Staubach, Bart Starr) pre-dated the WT, while a fifth, Joe Montana, didn’t take it.

The NFL made rule changes in 1978 that benefited the offense by allowing offensive linemen to extend their arms out straight to better control the rushing defensive linemen. They also gave receivers much more freedom to get downfield faster. It worked. The four multiple winning Super Bowl quarterbacks who pre-dated 1978 averaged a 1.07 average QB Ratio, while the fifth, Joe Montana, averaged 1.96 because he benefited from those rule changes when he entered the NFL in 1979.

Twelve quarterbacks have won multiple Super Bowls, Tom Brady in the lead with six. That might have been eight, but for Eli Manning beating him twice with late game drives. Those twelve quarterbacks have won 33 of the 53 Super Bowls played to date, nearly 2/3 in all.

The magic formula seems to be a high QB Ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions, fewer sacks through better pass protection, and experienced skill position players. Last year, Aaron Rodgers was sacked 49 times, Eli Manning 37, and Brady 21. Advantage, Brady.

Of the newbies, keep an eye on Pat Mahomes and Jared Goff with QB Ratios of 3.84 and 2.50, respectively. Staying healthy, they are the quarterbacks of the future.

Check out the spreadsheet here for further information.

Hut One, Hut Two.

Payroll Comparisons

I saw the Rays-Yanks game last week and watched the Rays play well for 10 innings, load the bases in the 11th, and still lose…just like what happened in the 10th inning the night before.

Here are the current payrolls of the top 3 teams in the AL East Division:

1. First of all teams in MLB is Boston at $225,463,226.

2. Last of all teams in MLB are the Rays at $62,857,663.

3. Second of all teams in MLB is New York at $218,120,940.

How can the Rays continue to compete so well with the two highest paid teams in the entire league?

The breakdown even further:  David Price, JD Martinez and Rick Porcello, the top 3 Red Sox players together make $75,875,000 — $13M more than the entire Rays team.

Pitchers Tanaka and Chapman make 62% of the Rays payroll at almost $40M

People avoid going to games as if the Rays are the worst team in the league when they are the 6th best.

Fans say, “Give us back David Price and trade our bullpen for Chapman and we’d lead the league.”

And they are right. At the All-Star break, the Rays find themselves only 6 1/2 games behind the Yankees, and listed as the American League team with the best chance to become a Wild Card into the playoffs with a legitimate shot at still winning the Division title outright.

It is ironic that the Rays desperately need both teams, the Yankees and the Red Sox, to come here to play in Tampa because there are so many former Northeasterners who now live here, or who will come down here to see their home town teams play. Attendance at those games doubles and triples compared to other visiting teams.

Then you have the Rays, with a team payroll that is but one quarter of what each of those opponents has. And yet the Rays do remain competitive. They are doing it with a young team with an innovative manager who is not afraid to break baseball tradition by switching first basemen and pitchers back and forth if data shows that would be a good move. Or start games with relief pitchers and bring in starters after a couple of innings. That type of strategy had them compile the best record in baseball for the first two months of the season, and still has them very much in the hunt at the All-Star break.

If fans down here don’t become appreciative of what they have in the Rays, and soon, the team will be in Montreal or Vegas or Charlotte, quicker than Jackie Robinson once stole home, never to return to the Tampa area again.

The stadium is easy to get to from all directions, the Interstate zipping right by the field. The sight lines at the field are great, there is ample parking, there are never any rainouts, and the temperature is always 72 degrees under the air conditioned dome.

Play ball!!!

A Tale of Two Cities

Something very strange took place in MLB over the past week. Two teams with a history of rivalry unmatched in professional sports, each having played one another hundreds of times during their combined two hundred years in MLB, journeyed across the pond to play two games in London.

So excited were the Brits to see baseball, many for the first time, they came out, 120,000 strong, to see the legendary Yankees and Red Sox renew their annual jousting for the American League Pennant.

What must these soccer loyalists have thought after centuries of 2-1 contests, watching players never able to use their hands, crowds slowly sinking into group somnambulism, awakened only by the latest Beatles hit?

The event was greeted with wild enthusiasm by the English, so much so, even the Royals came, Archie included. So upbeat was the extravaganza, I fully expected Charles Dickens to throw out the first pitch to Winston Churchill.

If MLB was looking to tip its toe in Europe, it must have been delirious with the result. The teams over the two games combined for fifty runs, seventy-five hits [eleven of which were homers] and runners circling the bases as if they were fillies at Epsom Downs.

Back home, an entirely different scenario was playing out. The only true competition for the Yankees and Red Sox in the American League East, the Tampa Bay Rays, were beginning a three game set with perhaps the worst team in baseball, the Baltimore Orioles, at St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field, noted for its low hanging catwalks and empty seats. So empty have those seats been lately, for this series one could get a seat for two bucks, and hot dogs and sodas for two dollars each, as well.

The irony of this Trans Atlantic adventure is that while the Yankees and Red Sox were getting between $85 and $500 for seats at London Stadium, the Rays couldn’t fill even half their seats at only two bucks each. Further irony yet, the Rays would not even be in business were it not for the season series played against the Yanks and Sox visiting the Trop, with tickets purchased from Rays season ticket holders on Stub Hub for $150 each. How is that for a whacky financial plan?

Tampa Bay is in danger of losing MLB after ten years of performing better than expected, so much so that the Rays are closer to the Yankees in the standings than are the Red Sox. So dire is the situation that team ownership has announced plans  to play half its home games in Montreal. Baseball in Tampa Bay has one foot out the door, never to return, with various cities offering incentives in Las Vegas and Charlotte and Indianapolis, among others.

Further irony can be found in the fact that while fans do not come to the games in numbers that would allow the Rays to stay, television ratings show that 100,000 people watch each home game on television.

Have A Happy Fourth!

Of Mets and Dinosaurs and Other Thoughts

Like many others, I mistakenly thought oil first came from decaying dinosaurs. I never knew why I first thought that, but in the eighty years I had, nothing I read or saw informed me differently.

Here is what happened.

It was the local Sinclair gas station on Long Island that gave this false notion its impetus. I was six when the 1940 World’s Fair was held in Flushing Meadows, future home of the New York Mets twenty-four years later, who, incidentally, played like dinosaurs those first few years. A big hit at the Fair was Sinclair Oil introducing a new logo.

The logo was a huge green dinosaur that became very famous. The local Sinclair station put up a sign with the dinosaur right up there for me to see every time I left the house. Therefore, I always connected the dinosaur and the gas station with oil and gasoline.

Google recently told me oil first came from the remains of marine plants and animals that lived eons before dinosaurs first appeared. So there’s that.

Basketball

Canada has had more NBA championships (1) in the last 25 years than Stanley Cups. The Montreal Canadiens won it in 1993 and no Canadian team has done it since.

Toronto beat Golden State three times in Oakland to pull it off, denying Golden State a three-peat. All of Canada went nuts over it. Perhaps the NBA should rename itself the International Basketball Association.

Baseball

There is good reason to mark Joe DiMaggio as the most consistent hitter ever in baseball. He hit 369 home runs and struck out exactly the same number of times. Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, but struck out a thousand more times than DiMaggio. Joe hit in 56 straight games in 1941, a record that still stands, and then went hitless in the 57th game, robbed of two hits by brilliant fielding plays. He then got hits in the next 16 games. That’s hitting safely in 72 of 73 straight games. Best ever, hands down.

Baseball

Time was two individual stats counted in baseball. Triple Crown in hitting and Earned Run Average in pitching. Best hitter and Best Pitcher. Then along came computer nerds who strove to measure every single act by every player ad nauseam. Case in point: [NIBB] (non-intentional base on ball.) Come on, a walk is a walk. Or [RBOE] (reached base on error.) Or [WHIP] (walks and hits per innings pitched). Or my favorite, [ISO] (isolated power extra base hits.)

Time was managers would stand on the top dugout steps waving fielders to locations based upon the manager’s memory of where the batter would likely hit the ball. Now through computer assistance, outfielders start the game with an index card they slip under their caps that tells them exactly where to stand based on an analysis of every batter’s computerized hitting tendencies since the day he was born.

Before long, this reliance will find its way to Little League. I can see [OLD] (outfielders lying down) or [ETR] (excessive trophies received) or [IWAPN] (I want a  pizza, now!)

Agents love these stats. They can drive a general manager to sleep extolling examples of how fast their clients can drive a ball at 113.4 mph into the seventh row of the center field bleachers in Fenway Park on cloudy Thursday afternoons. That’s [HAASS/BUCS] (hits arriving at specific seats based upon computer study.)

No kidding.

Spring Sports Rock

Football owns autumn and baseball rules summer, but some great sporting events occurred during the second quarter of this year. March Madness crowned Virginia as the top team, holding off a heroic effort by Texas Tech down the stretch.

Baseball began with the beginning of April. Now 40% into the season, the Dodgers have a formidable ten-game lead tied for the best record in baseball with the Twins. The Yankees, injuries and all, are one-half game behind the Rays for the AL East lead with the Red Sox struggling at eight games back. It looks like the Cubs and the Brewers will have a horse race right to the finish line. Baseball still looking for a way to speed up games and bring baseball out of the pastoral era with speedy contests fans love. That continues to be a difficult task.

April also saw an exciting Masters Tournament with Tiger Woods returning to form with a one-stroke victory, holding his lead despite tremendous pressure from three other golfers down the stretch.

The NBA and the NHL began their playoffs in early April, everybody wondering how none of the top four NHL seeds made it out of the first round. The finals of both the NHL and the NBA  brought together teams that few thought early on would be in position to win it all. In hockey, the underdog St. Louis Blues fought all the way against the Boston Bruins to get to the seventh game, to be played tonight in Boston with the Stanley Cup going to the victor. Judging from Boston’s 5-1 win this past Sunday in St. Louis, it could be a tough night for the Blues.

In the NBA, most assumed the crown would return to the Golden State Warriors, NBA winners the last two seasons. But recent injuries to some key players such as Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson cast a shadow over that happening. When the Toronto Raptors went up three games to one by winning two games on the Warriors’ home court last week, Golden State was forced to travel to Toronto for a must win game this past Monday. Toronto plays a team style game, hitting the open man, tenacious defense, great foul shooting (23 of 24 in game four) and generally unselfish play. Stephen Curry, a great player, knew he’d have to carry the load pretty much by himself to save his team from elimination. Only one team has ever come back from down 3-1 in the NBA Finals to win, that occurring in 2016 when LeBron James and Cleveland caught and beat these same Golden State Warriors. On Monday, however, the Warriors beat the Raptors by one point, 106-105, insuring a sixth game back home on Thursday. Durant played well before leaving the game because of his recurring calf injury.  His return is doubtful. Now Golden State must still win games six and seven to garner another title.

The French Open came down to Rafael Nadal looking for his twelfth title at Roland Garros, where he has compiled a record of 93-2 during his remarkable career. His opponent was Dominic Thiem, a twenty-five-year-old Austrian whose last name is pronounced ‘team’ putting to rest forever that old adage, “There is no ‘i’ in team.”

Nadal took the first set and Thiem the second. The next two sets belonged exclusively to Nadal, playing near perfect tennis, thereby, one might pun, “cementing” his status as the greatest player ever on clay.

Trends in Sports

I spend a lot of time following trends in sports. Case in point: The “Transfer Portal,” while sounding more like an episode of Star Trek, is actually a new NCAA rule allowing football and basketball players to seek transfers to other schools whenever it suits their fancy.  Just another move that puts the individual above the team.

In 1973, Title IX was enacted, stating that funds must be allocated evenly to men’s and women’s sports in college. Women accounted for 90% of the head coaching positions then in women’s sports. Presently, that figure has dropped to 46%. College athletic programs are primarily administered by male athletic directors. Just do the math.

“Re-Classing” is the new rage in middle schools wherein parents have their child repeat a year in school so they will stand out from kids a year younger than them in athletic competition. Their thinking is that this will give their child a better shot at a college athletic scholarship, relieving them of student loan debt, and possibly move the child closer to a professional shot at the NBA or NFL. Educators are very skeptical of this approach but coaches associated with travel teams in various sports often convince parents that this is in the child’s best interest. The whole idea is all about money, as is everything in today’s sports world. I say let kids be kids, academically, socially, and athletically.

Comments re Giants draft……This past season, Manning and Brady had remarkably similar statistics. One guy won a Super Bowl and the other guy went home. Passing stats (attempts, completions, percentage, yards after the catch, interceptions, total passing yards, yards per game), were all almost identical. Brady had eight more TD passes. The major difference was in sacks. Manning went down 47 times to Brady’s 21. Why? Terrible protection, especially from Manning’s blind side. So what did GM Gettleman do?

He traded a guy, Beckham, among the very best receivers in football to Cleveland. Beckham was making more than six catches a game, on his way to a 100 catch season before he got hurt and missed four games. The Giants got the Browns’ number six pick and instead of taking a blind side tackle, or arguably the best quarterback in college football and the choice of nearly every analyst, Dwayne Haskins of Ohio State, (50 TD passes, 5 picks), to learn the NFL game under Manning, he does neither and picks a Duke quarterback who he admits might have to sit for two or three years to learn the game. The last quality NFL QB from Duke was Sonny Jurgenson, and that was 62 years ago. On his next pick he gets a pass rusher, not the priority driven blind side tackle both the team and Manning need. Gettleman should be fired. One media guy in NY called Eli a dead man walking. And, even tougher, the same Division Redskins get Haskins to haunt and taunt the Giants for the next decade, twice a year.

Street Games

For a change of pace, I thought it might be fun to take a walk down memory lane to the games we played as we were growing up before we engaged in organized school or club games, well before Instagram, Words With Friends, e-mail, Twitter and all sorts of social media stuff.

You know, when you actually saw the kids you were playing against.

Girls jumping rope in the schoolyard, the really good ones doing “Double Dutch,” jumping between two ropes at once.

Dodge ball was played when everybody ran for cover to avoid getting hit with the ball.

Out of the schoolyard and onto the streets “Ring-a-leavio” was the game of choice, providing teams safety in hiding until captured and returned to imprisonment, usually a circle around a tree, the only escape coming when “Olley, Olley, Oxen Free” was shouted by a rescuer, freeing all prisoners.

As in all street games, the street lights coming on signified the end of play and all kids had to return to their homes. That was an unwritten law, and woe to the kids who ignored it.

Growing up in Queens, New York, parks and fields were a rarity so the street took over for stick ball, kick the can, hide and seek and punch ball.

For other fun we would go down to the railroad station and put pennies on the rails to be flattened by the passing trains of the Long Island Rail Road. We would then pitch those pennies against a wall, the closest to that wall winning them all.

Great neighborhood basketball games could be found on Saturdays at Public School 36 when all day tournaments would start at 9 am and go on until darkness. Great basketball players came out of Queens, the greatest of whom was probably Bob Cousy, who lived in our neighborhood.

After an All-American career at Holy Cross, Cousy went on to captain the Boston Celtics to numerous NBA championships. I saw him playing at PS 36 one chilly autumn Saturday in an overcoat, no less. He was as smooth as silk. The rules were a team had to win to continue playing, a game was won by a team getting to eight baskets first, having to win by two, half court only, winners out, with offense calling the fouls. No refs, none needed.

In cold weather we had a little pond in a nearby woods where pond hockey games were played with no refs, face offs with the puck placed on the ice and on the count of three, captains trying to get it. No lifting of the puck when shooting because, “Hey, anybody can do that!”

Softball in schoolyards  (balls hit over the short right field fence were an out), box hand-ball, hop scotch, marbles, and flipping bottle tops were all favorites that kept us kids busy and out of trouble.

We didn’t need trophies. Winning was the trophy. Those were the days, my friends.

Loyalty is a Fading Virtue

Time was, a high school senior good enough in the eyes of at least one football coach would be granted a scholarship assuring a college education, all expenses paid, with the reward of a million dollars more earning power in his lifetime, according to recent studies, if he achieved that valued diploma.

It was a fair deal…..the player would do his best and the coaching staff was available to guide and nurture the student athlete. There may have been returning lettermen at his position so he might have to wait his chance, honing his skills in practice, conditioning himself for  when the chance arose, doing well in academics to remain eligible as he grew into manhood, making the most of the opportunity granted him academically, athletically, and socially.

Occasionally such a young man would find that the competition in Division 1-A (currently Power 5 schools) might be too much at his chosen school and the coaching staff would assist his transferring to a lower classification school. For instance, at my school, the University of Minnesota, the transfer player might go to North Dakota State, where he would have a better chance of playing. He would have  to sit out one year, according to the rules at that time, put in place to prevent student/athletes from simply moving from school to school. I transferred from Fordham University to Minnesota when Fordham dropped football and I still had to sit out a year, so strict was the transfer rule at that time.

Now, those 130 Power 5 schools are faced with an enacted NCAA rule that allows a student/athlete to enter the “Transfer Portal”, commonly called “The Grass Is Always Greener Rule.” This action enables them to receive solicitations from other coaches interested in their desire to transfer. This is an example of retracted loyalty I find worrisome. It is a shattering of the unstated oath of trading athletic ability for educational achievement. A coach promised such and the young man accepted those conditions. To do otherwise, I consider disloyal.

Hundreds of college football players have entered that portal and many have already transferred, disrupting the programs of the schools that put faith in them to assist their school’s program.

In addition, to get around the rule to wait one year to play, many have hired attorneys to fight that provision based upon extenuating circumstances at their former school. That is how Michigan’s starting quarterback, Shea Patterson, was able to transfer from Mississippi and play immediately, as were five of his teammates to various other schools, claiming an NCAA investigation into the Mississippi program before their enrollment denied them the opportunity to play in bowl games. Reports state that 79% of claims to waive the one-year waiting period have been approved by the NCAA, rendering nearly moot the waiting time provision.

There is one variation of the transfer rule I find less onerous. Once a student/athlete has received a degree but has eligibility remaining, he may transfer to another school and not have to wait. In those cases the athlete has kept his word of playing and graduating while the school has kept its promise of degree attainment by a diligent student/athlete. Under that provision, Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks transferred to Wisconsin from North Carolina State, and Jalen Hurts has left Alabama to attend the University of Oklahoma.

In future Coach’s Corners we will re-visit this situation for further information and clarification.

Hut one…Hut two…

Tiger Roars

Down two strokes starting the back nine, it was beginning to look like the long dry spell for the once unparalleled god of all golfers was going to continue. His troubles over the past decade have been chronicled for all to see. His broken marriage due to his infidelity, his medical problems with four operations on his lower back, his DUI offenses, his nearly quitting the game. He was once the most recognized sports figure in the world, having won his first Masters in 1997 when he was 21. Now 43, after top-five finishes at his last two tournaments – his best finishes in six years – he   was on the biggest stage of his life for all to to see, doubters and hopefuls alike, if he could come from behind and pull this off.

Francesco Molinari, the best golfer Italy has ever produced, was in the lead, despite having learned and honed his game in a country with only 263 golf courses. Florida alone has 1,035. The pressure of the Masters took its toll on him at the 12th hole when he had a double bogey, opening the door for Tiger.

It is ironic that all the remaining golfers competing with Woods grew up admiring his greatness, stating their initial interest in the game came about while watching his dominance of the game a decade or more ago.

Over the next three holes, golfers would challenge Woods only to see him matching them while distancing himself from others. At each tee, the crowds would grow, yelling and cheering every shot. The feeling that maybe he could do it was the sports equivalent of a movie where the unlikely hero might carry the day.

Once Tiger birdied the 16th, taking the lead, the crowd couldn’t contain its astonishment and wonder taking place before them, cheering Woods as he trudged from tee to fairway, stoically walking and preparing for the job he had to finish.

Over those last three holes, he was magnificent, like a scientist studying his subject, using his knowledge of the course gained while winning four of these tournaments before, the last one eleven years ago. Every chip, every putt, every drive down that stretch was picture perfect, the crowds growing to bursting point with each stroke. At the par five eighteenth tee, he knew if he made par, nobody could catch him. It was as if he was painting a portrait of himself, his new self, every stroke a highlight of his life…successes, failures, mistakes, redemption, on this glorious sports spectacle, where the athlete determines success, not an errant referee.

When he holed out with a three foot putt on 18, he erupted in a cheer, as did the crowd, as did millions of us watching on televisions in homes, airports, bars and restaurants. His walking the rope line to the clubhouse with his son was a vision for the ages.

Tiger Woods was once again, perhaps, the best known athlete in the world.

It’s Hard to Break Good Habits

Arike Ogunbowale, Notre Dame’s star player, had last year led the Irish to the national championship. On Sunday night she was equally as impressive, bringing her team back from a seventeen-point second half deficit in pursuit of a very talented and much taller Baylor team.

Down two at 82-80 with 3.9 seconds left, it was show time again for her. Fouled while shooting a short jumper that failed, she had two free throws coming to her. She missed the first and knew the second would also have to be a miss, hopeful that a rebound would go to a teammate for a quick shot to tie or win the game. Arike was a great foul shooter all season, making 81% of her 214 attempts.

All teams practice to miss foul shots in a situation where two points are needed late to tie or take the lead. Everybody knew what was coming. Ogunbowale told her teammates to ready themselves for a rebound and quick shot. She then, unintentionally, deftly swished the ball through the nets, ending the quest for a second consecutive national championship.

Sometimes it’s hard to break good habits.

Auburn had come from behind on a 12-0 sprint to take the lead over Virginia in the men’s NCAA semi-final. The Cavaliers were coming up court down two with 5.4 seconds left when the Virginia dribbler let the ball ricochet off his sneaker and roll away, where he picked it up and began dribbling again. A referee scant feet away, eyes on the play, missed this double dribble violation as play continued with the clock ticking down. A three point attempt by Kyle Guy of  Virginia from downtown missed, but on the shot the ref signaled the defender had interfered with .6 seconds left. I thought not, seeing the defender do everything in his power to avoid such a call. Listening to others comment, I changed my mind, conceding the ref had made a correct call. Guy then made three successive foul shots for the win, tainted as it was with the blown call on the double dribble, reminiscent of the recent interference non-call that sent the Rams, and not the Saints, to the Super Bowl.

————————

It was also a missed call that helped Virginia in the championship game against Texas Tech.

In overtime, Virginia had a 75-73 lead, and after the teams traded possessions, Tech guard Davide Moretti scrambled after a loose ball heading into Virginia’s end of the court. He picked it up and started dribbling with his right hand. The replay clearly shows Virginia’s Kyle Guy grabbing Moretti’s right arm and holding it, causing the ball to roll free. But no ref called it or simply chose to ignore it. It appeared it would be Texas Tech ball, but a replay showed Moretti’s pinkie finger had barely scraped the ball on its way out of bounds. Virginia got possession, and Ty Jerome made two free throws. Game, and season, over.

Coach’s Thoughts

I will continue to rail against the “one-and-done” concept encouraging NBA-ready high school seniors to fake one academic year in college before turning pro. Kentucky and Duke do it regularly now. Duke got to the elite eight because of freshman man-child Zion Williamson, a projected number one pick in the upcoming NBA draft. He and two of his freshman teammates are the reason Duke won two games by a total of three points in March Madness.

There is an alternative league for these players called the “G” League, so named because of its sponsor, Gatorade, where these phenoms can earn good money ($35,000 for five months) playing basketball, eschewing the mirage of remaining an amateur by wasting a year in college, denying true college players a realistic shot at the Final Four. The NBA has a rule stating players can’t be drafted until they are 19 or one year out of high school. The G League minimum age is 18.

I don’t understand why these surefire pro prospects at age 18 do not choose the money from G League competition and instead choose college. With four teams left in this year’s Final Four, Michigan State, Texas Tech, Auburn and Virginia, none has a one and done player on their rosters.

Michigan State made the Final Four by executing a clever game-ending pass-in from their far sideline that caught the Duke defense by surprise and then ran out the clock. Auburn beat the other one-and-done team, Kentucky, through simply greater speed. MSU plays Texas Tech and Auburn plays Virginia in the semi finals. I am picking Michigan State and Auburn to get to the championship game with the Spartans taking home the trophy.

Jameis Winston

NFL Rule # 1. Preventing turnovers and scoring touchdowns Equals Effective Quarterback Performance.

Winston’s record as a starter (21-33) is 39% after 4 years.

Winston has a touchdown (88) to interception (58) ratio of 1.5 to 1.

Other QBs Ratios

  • Drew Brees (2.23)
  • Peyton Manning (2.14)
  • Matthew Stafford (1.8)
  • Matt Ryan (2.21)
  • Phillip Rivers (2.10)
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick (1.97)
  • Marcus Mariota (1.64)
  • Patrick Mahomes (3.84)
  • Joe Montana (1.96)

In his career, Winston has thrown 150 total passes inside the Red Zone, resulting in 17 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, inside the Red Zone in his career, has thrown 56 passes resulting in 17 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.

In effect, Fitzpatrick has been three times more effective than Winston in the Red Zone, the graveyard of broken quarterbacks.

In addition, when Winston had to sit out the first three games last year after groping a Uber driver, Fitzpatrick threw for 400 plus yards in each of those games, something no other NFL quarterback in history had ever done.

The Bucs just traded Fitzpatrick to the Dolphins and picked up journeyman Blaine Gabbert to back up Winston. Go figure.

The Lightning

Business note: Sold out Lightning hockey games gross $85 a ticket or $1.7 million a game. The $50,000 given to “Neighborhood Heroes” at every home game is less than 3% of that total. I don’t know the profit margin in the NHL but I do feel that the $50,000 is money very well spent. The presentation between periods exemplifies the great feeling the community has toward the Lightning organization and the players.

March Madness & College Football Playoff

The main difference between the College Football Playoff (CFP) and March Madness is the length of time it takes to declare a winner, as well as the number of teams vying for those championship rings.

Four teams playing over two weekends in football determine the National Champion while sixty-eight college teams fight and claw for a full month to determine placement and seeding positions in basketball.

The CFP will soon expand to either six or eight teams to lessen the furor that every year four or five teams on the bubble miss the cut because of outdated and antiquated methods of choosing the final four teams.

In basketball, the team that wins the championship, the final game, the contest that all sixty-eight teams had a shot at, is undoubtedly the best team in college basketball. The same cannot be said of the CFP.

Case in point: Notre Dame has had two perfect 12-0 seasons in the past seven seasons and twice got to the championship game only to lose by four touchdowns each time. It is unlikely, that should Notre Dame go 12-0 again, they would make the final four cut. That would not be good for college football given Notre Dame’s place in gridiron culture.

The NCAA must go to an eight team playoff system in football to also insure lesser known undefeated teams or conference champions all have an equal shot at the brass ring. The more teams you have, the greater the chance a truly deserving team will emerge as the winner. Just like it is in college basketball.

To those academicians who say adding another week of football to accommodate four more teams to an already lengthy football schedule would be too much diversion from their academic routine, give me a break.  Slightly more than half of those playing will ever graduate anyway, and basketball teams are already engaged in a month-long effort to win their title through conference championships before the round ball NCAA’s even start.

The first two rounds of the basketball tournament are history and there have been some interesting results.

The good news is Colgate and Yale, respectively, held biggies Tennessee and LSU to single digit victories, proving once again you can be smart, and also good at the game.

Little known Murray State (12 seed), from South Carolina, took Marquette (5 seed) out of its game early and coasted to an easy win. Ja Morant, very talented player expected to be a second round NBA pick after only his sophomore year, showed why with a tremendous triple double.

Interesting development in the second round against a very talented Florida State quintet. From the outset it was clear Morant was the best player on the floor before injuring his ankle. Florida State began to pull away with Morant’s parents looking on, most likely thinking “with Ja hurt, this game is over. He should go to the bench with the NBA draft so near.” To his credit, Ja struggled but still managed 28 points to help his team in a thirty-point loss.

All number one seeds are still intact (thanks to Duke’s last second win against UCF) and there is talk it could be an all ACC Final Four with outlier Florida State (4 seed) replacing Gonzaga and joining number one seeds Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia at the big Final Four dance.

See you next week.

Johnny Lujack And Instant Replay

(Between now and the autumn return of football, Coach’s Corner will be presenting from time to time favorite entries from previous seasons. I hope you enjoy them, again. Coach Reese.)

Notre Dame quarterback Johnny Lujack won the Heisman in 1947 when he led the Fighting Irish to the national championship. I first heard of the great Lujack in 1943 when he was a freshman at Notre Dame, subbing for a previous Heisman winner, Angelo Bertelli, who had been called to active duty during World War II.

I met him in the fall of 1961 when he was a top-flight NFL announcer for CBS, covering New York Giant football games and I, in the twilight of a mediocre career, was laboring for the Mount Vernon Eagles, a semi-pro team in neighboring Westchester County, New York.

I was asked to make a commercial with Lujack for Falstaff beer. He had been hired by a New York advertising agency and needed a modeling dummy to interact with him.

Teaching high school English and making a hundred-and-twenty-five a week, I jumped, nay leaped, at the opportunity to pocket a quick three-hundred bucks for a day’s work.

However, I was somewhat limited in modeling experience, my fifteen minutes of fame coming while displaying a nice herringbone sport coat with leather elbow patches during a fashion show in the student union when I was attending the University of Minnesota in the late ’50s. I recall I was allowed to keep the coat, priced at $26. Today, the NCAA would be peeking through the windows ready to slap me with a three-game suspension for such an egregious act.

My assignment was holding the ball for Lujack kicking a field goal, or throwing him the ball so he could catch it, or just standing there, mannequin-like, as he explained the different functions of the equipment I was wearing. That era’s “Johnny Football” would then comment on each of the tasks.

After taping a segment, we would retreat to a trailer to look at the video tape of what we had just done. Corrections were made if necessary and we would go out and do it again until we got it right.

Each time we came back to the trailer, I noticed this technician in front of one of the monitors playing back what we had just done so we could all look at it and make adjustments. Standing there with Lujack, I told the techie that I had played in college and how we looked at films of our games the day after we played to see how we did.

I said, “since you can replay what we are doing here so quickly, is there any way you could do that for the people watching the games on television so they could see why a play was or wasn’t successful? I think fans would really like that.” Lujack nodded in assent.

The technician said to me, “You know, kid, that’s not a bad idea!”

The very next year, in the fall of 1962, CBS introduced instant replay to football fans for the first time.

Coincidence?

Just do the math, fans, just do the math!

The Stupor Bowl

You have to hand it to the Pats. They sure know how to take advantage of opportunities. In perhaps the most boring Super Bowl ever played, and the least watched in the past ten years, New England, for the third time in the past five years, won a Super Bowl handed to them.

Remember the second and goal on the half-yard line four years ago against Seattle when, with three shots at rushing the ball in with Marshawn (The Beast) Lynch carrying, down by four with a minute left, Russell Wilson inexplicably passed and was picked off.

Then two years ago, Atlanta has a first and ten, up by eight, on the Pats 28 with four minutes and change left on the clock. The book says run three times, make them use their timeouts, kick a chip shot field goal to go up by 11, and play prevent defense. Instead, an incompletion on first down stopped the clock, a running play gained but two yards, and then the quarterback got sacked back on the Pats 45-yard-line, forcing a punt with little time taken off the clock. The Pats take advantage of the extra gift of time and come back to win.

Last year the Eagles flat out beat them.

This year, because of the worst call in NFL history, they were playing against a quarterback who at half time had fewer completions than his kicker had punts, instead of another guy sitting at home in New Orleans who has thrown for 520 touchdowns in his storied career. Once again opportunity knocked, the Pats answered, and to their credit, won.

For defensive purists who said it was a great mano-y-mano struggle, I agree the defenses were superb but offense is what fans want in the final game.

Was that Harrison Ford in one of those commercials?

The two young ladies singing “America The Beautiful” were magnificent and the Jets flying in formation passing over the stadium as seen through the roof was breathtaking.

While Jared Goff looked like a deer staring into headlights all night, running back Todd Gurley was A.W.O.L.

The lowest total score in Super Bowl history seemed appropriate retribution for that horrible gaffe in New Orleans. It totally over shadowed the viewers’ thinking but I never heard reference to it once by the announcers.

The entire city of New Orleans boycotted watching the game.

The NFL desperately wanted a 54-43 barn burner to ease the pain of this season as it looked ahead to better days.

On that cloudy horizon, just waiting, jaws agape, is unlimited betting from your friendly lap top or iPhone allowing the poorly informed at the corner bar to make wagers in real time, for example, as to what the next play being called will be. It could present untold problems for the game. Interest in teams will wane. There will be more rooting for individuals.

Where have you gone, Joe Montana? Where have you gone?

The Super Bowl

In 1967, the first post-merger NFL Championship game was played. The Green Bay Packers, under coach Vince Lombardi, beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10. It would be three years before the moniker, Super Bowl, would be used. Every year since, the two best teams played to earn the coveted Lombardi Trophy, emblematic of gridiron greatness. This year, that isn’t the case.

Because of that calamitous non-call in New Orleans in the NFC Championship game, the Los Angeles Rams, not the New Orleans Saints, will face the New England Patriots. And that’s a shame.

For decades, the NFL set the standard for well run professional sports leagues, wresting the mantle of leadership from MLB. They embraced that role, creating teams and players and coaches lauded for their prowess and knowledge.

Landry, Lombardi, Belichick and Walsh on the sidelines. Montana and Bradshaw and Manning and Favre on the field. Madden, Summerall, Gifford up in the booth.

Bert Bell, Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue were the commissioners who grew the league into wealth unimaginable.

Present Commissioner Roger Goodell is not entirely to blame for the lessening enthusiasm for the NFL.  He hasn’t behaved irresponsibly or embarrassed his position. On Sundays, he is invisible until such a transgression as that which is sending the Rams to the Super Bowl occurs.

He is responsible, however, for the presentation of his product. It is in his fulfilling that role I find room for criticisms.

As to referees, it is inconceivable that he could not foresee leaving the judgement call of one referee inside the red zone in a championship game to determine interference or not might be a mess of gigantic proportions. You gotta figure someone making just south of fifty million per year would’ve had someone anticipating that happening.

No one under his supervision seems to be able to control the silly individual or team choreographed dances present in every game.

A promising season, absent, for the most part, demonstrations and player unrest, unraveled with the New Orleans mistake. Suddenly, that’s all that has been discussed.

The Pro Bowl, a joke compared to other All-Star games, was a disaster. It was simply a pay day for selected individuals who preened their way in what became a flag football contest with players whimsically changing positions just for the hell of it. For spending a week in Orlando and faking playing for a couple of hours on Sunday, the winners got $67,000 and the losers $39,000.

The uniforms were a joke, the tv promos were lame, the game was a farce, and the broadcast crew second rate.

I think New England will win the Super Bowl. The only chance the Rams have rests with how well Todd Gurley runs the ball. Brady will be Brady and Jared Goff will have to play the game of his life to win.

$39,000 each for losing a fake game. Maybe too much money is the real issue with the NFL.

Four Great QBs, One Lousy Ref

Let us put this into perspective.

Never, since George Halas and cronies met in a Hupmobile auto showroom ninety-nine years ago in Canton, Ohio to form the NFL, has there been a more egregious faux pas, a greater lack of knowledge, a brain fart of such prodigious enormity, an error of judgement rivaled only by the Charge of The Light Brigade into the Valley of Death in the Crimean War, than that exhibited by a man named Gary Cavaletto, an idiot posing as a zebra.

The four teams vying for the right to play in the Super Bowl performed brilliantly, each erasing leads to compete fiercely until the final whistle, a total of but nine points separating the collective final scores. But it was the act of, or rather, non-act, of this buffoon that has relegated the greatness of arguably the four best quarterbacks in pro football, to the side bars of written commentary.

The NFL was approaching the end of a fairly non-controversial season. The last thing it needed was this non-call to decide a game that might well have pitted the two best quarterbacks of all time at the perceived end of their careers in a Super Bowl.

Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes will ascend to the stardom of Brees and Brady. It is only a matter of time. Guys in bars will be fighting for all time as to which was the “The Greatest of All-Time”, Drew Brees or Tom Brady.

Irony plays a role in this story. For decades after Halas and his cronies first met, the NFL carried MLB’s water. It wasn’t until 1958 and the overtime “Greatest Game Ever Played” between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts drove millions of fans to Sunday afternoon football, both at home and in far greater numbers to the fairly new medium of television, leaving every other sport in its wake.

Now, why should the use of television be denied in making both non-judgement (was the ball over the goal line) and judgement calls (pass interference). Cameras see action better than eyes. That’s why instant replay is so interesting. Give the fans what they want.

Certainly plays closer to the goal line should have a form of review in addition to just all touchdowns being reviewed. Red Zone play is critical to a team’s success.

From the twenty-yard line thru the end zone is where it is harder to score because it is so small with twenty-two players scurrying all across the field. I can understand somewhat that judgement calls should remain the purview of referees but anytime the ball reaches that Red Zone, in flight or carried, cameras should take over. Even a compromise of the two closest refs agreeing to a transgression having happened with lack of consent by one sending the ruling up stairs should be considered.

The very best two teams should get to the Super Bowl. You owe it to the game, Roger.

Conference Championships

This Sunday will see some great football deciding who gets to the Big Dance. Last year with the Eagles’ Nick Foles doing his magic, Philadelphia provided a great run.

Drew Brees got the better of his fellow high school alumnus by overcoming two quick scores to storm back for a win. Up by six with 2:58 left, Saints tried a 52-yard field goal, in doors, no wind. Gutsy call, I thought.

Only one time out left for Philly. Having held the Eagles scoreless for fifty minutes, I figured punt and defend would be the better call. Wide right. Foles first and ten at his own 42. Nice pass to Ertz for 16 yards.

Inexplicably, the Eagles wasted time lining up, the clock quickly approaching the 2:00 warning. Wanting to get both the time out at two minutes and saving the one time out left, Foles quickly tried to get off a pass play with 2:03 left. I felt the quickness of the play being called, a short hook pass to Jeffrey, was a bit off in its timing. Jeffrey was turning around to catch the ball when it arrived. Interception, and game and season over. Tough for Eagles who had turned their season around mid-year.

Rams are run and Saints are pass. Cowboys couldn’t stop the L.A. run and Eagles couldn’t stop the N.O. pass. I like perhaps the greatest passer in the game’s history, Drew Brees, to the Rams Goff, as good as he is. But the Rams running game, 273 punishing yards against Dallas with nary a sack allowed, is prime time stuff. If the Saints allow a quick start to the Rams like they did to the Eagles, it could be a long day with L.A. running the ball and the clock.

Patrick Mahomes is something else. Fearless in the pocket, he can beat you short and long, overhead or sidearm, with quickness to get upfield after avoiding the sack. He is very efficient at getting in the end zone with fifty scoring passes this season. He did not throw a touchdown pass against the Colts as it was the Chief’s defense that ruled the day. The 31-13 score was very close to the number of rushes each team had. Indy never had a chance.

Brady is Brady and Gronk is Gronk and often that train doth meet. Plug in an Edelman or a White scurrying around downfield and Michel scoring rushing touchdowns and the Pats are the Pats. 41-28 win over the Chargers wasn’t as close as the score indicates. It was total dominance. Week six, Pats beat Chiefs in Foxboro, 43-40. This week the game is in K. C. Home field is important in the post season.

In the Super Bowl, I think we are going to see the “Battle Of The Goats.” (Greatest of All Time) Brady vs Brees.

Bama — Clemson

Don’t forget to tune in next year when Alabama and Clemson will once again meet for the National Championship. Same bat time, same bat channel.

Unless we get to an eight team playoff, the above will become the annual scenario. They are simply the two best programs in the country right now, Bama’s meltdown this time notwithstanding.

The Tide’s inability to score touchdowns in the red zone on three occasions and poorly executed trick plays seemed to break their spirit late in the first half and they never recovered.

Clemson simply had too much heft up front and a pass and catch duo out of this world in Trevor Lawrence and Justyn Ross, two freshmen who will haunt the Crimson Tide for three more years or until they both turn pro in two years.

This time last year, Lawrence was wondering who he was going to be taking to his high school senior prom. Today he is sifting through resumes of a dozen agents ready to represent him. The second coming of Peyton he is being called. And with good reason. At 6’5″ and 225, he is in the Manning mold, smart, accurate, and durable.

Get this. The seniors on Clemson won fifty-five games and two national championships. No team has ever done that before.

Nick Saban has a problem. He may be too good. He has a hard time keeping his staff together. They get lucrative offers to leave. Assistant coaches do all the recruiting. They work their own geographical states for recruits, earning the friendship and trust of high school coaches. That takes time. He has lost some prime in-state recruits to the competition, Clemson’s Ross being a prime example.

Maybe losing recruiting battles, constantly in need of finding new assistants, and having nothing else to prove at Alabama is cause enough for him to return to the NFL. No more coddling seventeen year old prima donnas to come to Bama, but just waiting your turn to pick in the draft.

He can coach anywhere. His six national championships is proof of that. If I were an NFL owner with a head coaching vacancy, I’d be on the phone pronto to his agent. Sure, he had a cup of coffee with the Dolphins fifteen years ago but at fifty-two then and Alabama calling, who wouldn’t have taken Bear Bryant’s old job?

Next year, let’s hope the suits find a way to appease all parties involved and get an eight team playoff started. An extra week of playoffs to a football hungry fan base is well worth the effort to get the truly best teams to the post season playoff.

NHL Hockey, MLB baseball, NFL football and NBA basketball all send 40% of their teams to post season playoffs. College football sends 3%. Any wonder colleges need more to get the truly best?

This weekend I like Saints over Eagles, Rams over Cowboys, Kansas City over Indy, and Chargers over Patriots.

Hut one…Hut two

College Football Playoff

Alabama and Clemson will be playing for the national championship for the umpteenth time this year, but that is something most of us knew before the season even started. Loaded with talent at every position, neither was really tested all year including their semi-final wins over Oklahoma and Notre Dame, respectively. Clemson beat the Irish by twenty-seven and Alabama was up 28-0 over the Sooners at the end of the first period. Both schools have great football programs, have little problem recruiting the best players, and have relatively few discipline problems, the one exception is Clemson having a lineman named Dexter Lawrence sitting out the game for substance abuse but in the process getting more time on camera than the great Tiger quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, a freshman who is already NFL ready, barely a year out of high school. But hey, the suits know ratings better than me.

Notre Dame has a problem. Twice now in the last five years they have gotten to the Final Four undefeated, only to lose by four touchdowns each time. The Irish present the selection committee with a big problem. How do you keep a school with the tradition, the built in national fan base, the outstanding graduation rate, and an undefeated season, out of the playoffs?

The answer to that question lies in having eight, rather than four, teams qualify for the playoffs.

It is certainly not having just two, as some pundits have suggested. Fans want more football, not less. An extra week of college playoff games, sandwiched between the final game and the beginning of NFL post season play can certainly be accommodated. There is no way the University of Central Florida (UCF) was not in the playoffs. A loss to Purdue notwithstanding, the Ohio State Buckeyes thrashed Michigan and should have represented the Big Ten in the CFP, instead of Oklahoma. They certainly had the best quarterback in Dwayne Haskins, who threw for three scores, giving him an even fifty for the season. That is simply sensational.

It was the Notre Dame inability to defend against the pass that killed them. Clemson simply had more athletic receivers than Notre Dame had adept defenders. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns in torching the Irish.

Tua Tagovailoa, the Alabama quarterback, was 24 of 27 in leading the Crimson Tide over Oklahoma. To their credit, the Sooners never quit, cutting a twenty-eight point deficit to eleven by game’s end, but every time they would inch closer, Alabama would respond with a score. Tagovailoa threw for 318 yards and four touchdowns.

I pick Alabama to beat Clemson, 31-17. And I also predict that we will have an eight-team playoff within two years. The selection process is simply too subjective and the only solution to that is to have more quality teams in the mix. Having eight solves that problem.

Football This Saturday

This Saturday marks the beginning of the 2018 College Football Playoffs. So let’s analyze just who is going to win it all.

Alabama plays Oklahoma and Notre Dame plays Clemson.

Based on school songs alone, the Irish are a  shoo-in with Cheer, Cheer…… (you all know the rest) against whatever Clemson calls its fight song, stealing it from that great singing trio of the 1940s, those fabulous Mills Brothers, melodically chanting “The Tiger Rag.” 

 

But, and it’s a big but, if one is going by the old axiom that defense wins championships, then Clemson at # 4 should beat the Irish at # 20. But my money will be on Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book once again saving the Irish season as he did last year in the bowl game against LSU. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly seems to have cooled his sideline demeanor, leaving the playing to the boys and the coaching to his assistants. He finally learned that his job was to pick his assistants and let them win the games.

Oddly enough, the Oklahoma fight song has only two words, “Boomer Sooner,” always sung from a galloping covered wagon of cowboys circling the field, who I always assume will soon break out into singing “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning.”

Alabama, on the other hand, always evokes in me the vision of perhaps the greatest coach who ever lived, Paul “Bear” Bryant, when the Crimson Tide sings their fight song, the rousing “Yeah, Alabama, Crimson Tide.” And, if Oklahoma were to knock out the ‘Bama quarterback, whichever of the two it might be, the guy replacing him will do a better job. Last year, quarterback Tua Tagovailova, the “Hawaiian Hurler” came off the bench to replace Jalen Hurts to win the national championship, and this year Jalen came off the same beach to replace Tua and win the SEC championship to get to the Final Four. That’s how good Alabama recruits and ends up sending more players to the NFL than any other school.

Oklahoma, however, does have the Heisman Trophy winner on its roster. Kyler Murray had a great season, but in this reporter’s mind, not nearly as good as Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who threw for over 4,500 yards and decimated Michigan’s # 1 defense by putting up 62 points, leading the Buckeyes to a 12-1 season and the Big Ten title, its only defeat an inexplicable 49-20 loss to Purdue, a 41-10 loser to your Minnesota Golden Gophers, thank you very much. And Oklahoma’s defense is not even in the top forty while Alabama is # 10. Murray is going to be a professional baseball player, and to his credit, unlike many college senior NFL wannabes who are skipping bowl games for fear of injuries impacting future pro earnings, is 100% behind his Sooners. So, there’s that.

My picks have Alabama beating Oklahoma and Notre Dame beating Clemson, setting up a rematch of the 2013 Championship game when “Bama” crushed the Irish, 42-14.

College Football Playoff

The teams selected to this year’s College Football Playoff are certainly quality programs. Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma have a current four year record of 189 wins against 27 defeats. Collectively, they have won 47 National Championships. Yet this year, none of them might be the best team in America, even though they are a combined 47-1.

Hence, the need for eight teams, rather than four, to be selected for post season playoff inclusion. No way do Georgia and Ohio State deserve non-inclusion. For the second year in a row, undefeated UCF goes uninvited.

Ohio State may well be the best team in the country. They had the misfortune of playing their last two games against Michigan and Northwestern, in that order.

Had they reversed those two Saturdays and OSU beat Michigan in the final game, 62-39, no way would they have been left out of the final four. I think they can beat any of the four teams selected.

Their quarterback, Dwayne Haskins, is the best there is, Bama’s Tua Tagovalloa and Heisman winner Kyler Murray of Oklahoma notwithstanding, and should have won the Heisman. Their receivers made fools out of Michigan’s secondary, leaving them in the dust time and time again.

And then there is Urban Meyer, retiring again. He was very successful in recruiting in talent heavy Florida and Ohio, winning national championships in both places. If he comes back, he’ll likely go to one of the two other hotbed states of high school football, Pennsylvania or Texas. Or perhaps the NFL, where you needn’t recruit but just pick the next best player in the pool.

UCF has won 25 straight games over the past two years and would have been a shoo-in for inclusion had there been eight teams eligible for the CFP rather than only four.

Army beat Navy and will likely improve their number twenty-two ranking. It is strange that after thirteen straight losses to the Middies, the Cadets have now won three straight.

Strange also that in the Coach’s final poll, Alabama’s Nick Saban picked Clemson at number one instead of his own team, something only one other coach did.

If you watched the final game in which Alabama held off Georgia to win the SEC title and clinch first place in the playoffs, you had to be impressed as Alabama back-up quarterback Jalen Hurts came off the bench, in relief of starter Tua Tagovalloa to win the game, something Tua did in winning last year’s title for the Crimson Tide.

Hollywood could not have provided as thrilling an ending.  And how nice in the after game comments, Hurts told interviewers that they just didn’t understand how much graduating from Alabama meant to him. After winning 25 games and a national championship, to have been benched in favor of Tagovalloa and then play as a reserve until his time came again is loyalty of the highest order. Jalen is one fine young man.

Game Preparation

Readers have asked me what it’s like in the hours preceding a football game. The first comparison I’ll make is that it’s a lot different than when I played.

Back then when teams walked together towards the stadium, they would wave or shake hands with fans who lined the street leading to the field.

Now all the players wear head sets listening to some goofy music while totally ignoring fans who just want to wish them well.

That is the height of rudeness, making the players look boorish.

I am surprised coaches tolerate such action.

You first get butterflies when you reach the locker room and you become part of a scene that is hurried and harried, yet pensive and hopeful.

If a game starts at two, by one, you are in the locker room. The first order of business is to get your ankles taped, a ceremony hated by all because they are taped so tight they hurt. They are supposed to hurt to protect against a broken or bruised ankle or instep sidelining you during the game.

While the backs are being taped, the interior linemen are in another room, going over their assignments. It takes longer for them to do that because they are, with few exceptions, not as bright as the skill position players. Nor are they as handsome.

They then switch, the burly behemoths commencing to be taped while the skill guys just chat amiably with each other. When the linemen are all taped, they let out a collective grunt and join the skill guys for a last minute pep talk by the head coach.

The talk is the same every game. It is called “The Seven Game Maxims.” They are a set of rules which, if followed, guarantee success. They have been around for nearly a hundred years and are as true today as they were when first spoken at the University of Tennessee by General Neyland, a revered name in college football. It is sixty years now since I last heard them and I can still recite them from rote memory, when requested, although those requests are becoming fewer each year.

The butterflies really kick in when you exit the locker room to enter the packed stadium. As soon as the crowd sees you running in, they start cheering, the band plays your school’s fight song, and if you are the man designated to return kick offs, as I was, you hope you lose the coin toss so your opponent will have to return the kick. [Deferring to the second half hadn’t been invented yet.] Cowardly, you say? Nay, self preservation, knowing all eleven opponents are aiming for you, and you alone.

When the game starts, in spite of 65,000 people yelling, you are so focused on the game, you feel like you did when you played in high school.

Except the locker rooms are a lot nicer now with individual stalls so big they could double as summer cottages on peaceful northern lakes.

Yet another place where the players could wear those dippy dopey ear phones.

Hut One, Hut Two…