Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Week Nine's Annual Epic

Here were go again.   As we approach Brady Manning number sixteen, we look at this week's other games as well -


Panthers over Saints - Last week's New Orleans win was a needed win for the beleaguered Saints, but this week they go on the road to a more-desperate Panthers team that is still smarting to a bitter loss to the Seahawks.


Browns over Buccaneers - There seems no way the Bucs can seize any kind of momentum this season as they travel to a Browns team that has a lot of momentum going for it.


Bengals over Jaguars - The Bengals got back on track by sweeping the Ravens and now get a Jaguars team that's shown some fight but isn't in anyone's league.


Cardinals over Cowboys - The illusion of the almighty Cowboys got stomped, and a former NFC East opponent comes in with a bearing on the conference's #1 seed.


Eagles over Texans - The Texans have been playing better this year but face an Eagles squad smarting from a tough loss.


Chiefs over NY Jets - The Chiefs are in better shape that I thought they'd be at this point of the season and the Jets are in even worse shape than anyone could have imagined.


Chargers over Dolphins
- Miami has shown real improvement this year, but San Diego saw one get away from them and want to get back into the race.


Redskins over Vikings - Minnesota pulled off a shocker last week, but Washington's shocker carries more meaning entering this contest.


49ers over Rams - This is no lay-up pick, for the Niners have real internal issues and the Rams are starting to pick up some fight.

Patriots over Broncos - Amid all the varied analyses, one angle overlooked is that Denver has struggled to close out games - they outlasted Indianapolis, barely escaped Kansas City, barely escaped a very bad Jets squad, and even in scoring 35 against San Diego never looked in complete control of that game.   Moreover their vaunted defensive improvement has been a mere four points per game from 2013.  Meanwhile the Patriots are surging in scoring and in stopping opposing offenses - of 177 points allowed, 74 came in two games.   The issues of O-line and receivers have been rectified and the Patriots' revamped O-line has taken over the line of scrimmage.   The Patriots run defense has been bad (over 1,000 yards, 4.6 yards per carry allowed), but Denver has allowed more touchdowns on the ground (five) than the Patriots (four).   The Broncos on the ground have not been better either - 710 rushing yards to 845 for the Patriots.  


Seahawks over Raiders - The Seahawks enjoy for themselves the closest thing to a second bye week - a free shooting match against the hapless Raiders.


Ravens over Steelers
- The Steelers showcased a level of firepower we can't remember them ever showing before in the win over Indianapolis.   The Ravens, though, can match that firepower and need this win to keep pace in an increasingly torrid AFC North race.


Colts over NY Giants - The Colts come in smarting from the loss in Pittsburgh and get a mediocre Giants team to turn it around against.


We thus await the annual Brady Manning slugfest.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Talladega As Libertarian Metaphor

The GEICO 500 spared us footage of the lizard speaking in Cockney accent by British actor Jake Wood, and we saw some excellent racing, perhaps the best since the Firecracker 400 - hardly shocking given the two plate tracks produce the best racing in NASCAR.   But the Talladega weekend also showcased yet again the absurdity of the rules packages designed specifically for those tracks, and in so doing showcased anew the Libertarian metaphor.


Government meddling is the arch-enemy in the Libertarian analysis, and certainly the history of the world and mythologies constructed in favor of such failures as the New Deal consistently prove correct the mistrust of government that has made the Libertarian movement more popular.   What is witnessed year after year at Talladega and its sister track Daytona in the special rules packages NASCAR has imposed over the last decade and a half merely showcase the Libertarian metaphor at work in a racing context.  


Push-drafting is an old custom in NASCAR, and Richard Petty in the 1970s Dodge Charger days was the art's master.  It went away when the cars changed to "all that plastic" after running chrome bumpers, then NASCAR witnessed the return of push-drafting in the 2000-8 period, then saw the rise of outright two-car superdrafting in 2009 and 2010 - cars now pushed each other literally all the way around, and were passing entire fields of cars in one lap.   It then escalated to an entirely new level in 2011.   Brian France took a personal hatred of the pattern that year, especially after the finish of the 500-miler that October, and his subsequent rules packages were designed to quash it.    That it looked bizarre at first was obvious to all; that there were aspects of it to dislike was also true - specifically that the second-place car would push the leader out into the clear and just stay there instead of pass the leader - but the net result of quashing it cannot by any stretch be considered a better alternative to it.   For the big strength of the superdrafts remains it is the strongest power to pass racing has ever seen.  


Watching the 2014 running of the Diehard 500 and the 250-miler for the Trucks merely illustrated again how the racing at Talladega is very good but where meddling from up top has needlessly suppressed what makes the racing better.   Joe Nemechek and Matt Crafton got blackflagged for push-drafting in the Talladega Truck 250, this after NASCAR got egg on its face over not policing push-drafting in the Busch Series 250 at Daytona in July.   Nemechek salvaged a tenth place in that race and between the penalty and the grossly uneven level of passing in both races, it all showcased the fundamental pitfalls of NASCAR's ideology.


NASCAR for the last two-plus decades has added to its rulebook and the emphasis has had one overriding them - giving the officiating tower or the inspection station (sometimes both) more control of the racing.   Having tight regulations that make sense is not a negative, the problem is more and more of these regulations don't make sense.   If NASCAR allowed push-drafting then the 38 lead changes in the Diehard 500 would have perhaps doubled, and allowed more drivers to storm back to the lead instead of be trapped out back; incentivizing going for the lead is the ultimate good in sports and the meddlesome nature of the sanctioning body needless suppresses that virtue. 


Would Brad Keselowski have still won the 500 even if push-drafting was not policed?   Perhaps - Keselowski's 2014 season has been strikingly uneven but his competitive fight is legitimate.   The racing as it was was very exciting - yet it should have been substantially more competitive.  


*****


Another striking blow to the race's competitive ferocity was the points-racing strategy used by several drivers, notably Jeff Gordon, who never contended and finished 26th.   While Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kasey Kahne needed to win and overall raced like it, Keselowski was the only other contender who did so.   Talladega being Talladega the points racing ethos was not as prevalent as it is at other tracks, but it existed nonetheless and shows that NASCAR's Chase format, regardless of changes made to ostensibly make winning more important, still cannot work - a points format that artificially eliminates drivers and does not provide the incentive to win that is advertised is a points format that fundamentally doesn't work.


NASCAR's next elimination round begins at Martinsville next week.   Racing being racing, it is competitively enjoyable, yet still needs a lesson in Libertarianism for NASCAR so that it can be a lot better.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Postscript on Patriots Thursday Night Grinder

The New England Patriots escaped the trap and put up their third straight win, edging the New York Jets 27-25 on a blocked field goal kick on the final play.   The Jets used to be known as the NY Titans, worth mentioning as this game resembled last week's Tennessee Titans win - also on a blocked field goal at the end - over the Jaguars.  

Some takeaways on this Patriots win over the Jets -


*****


Some are bitterly disappointed the Patriots could not rout the now 1-5 Jets the way San Diego did two weeks back, especially when Brady whipped the Patriots to the first touchdown with seemingly absurd ease.   The reality, though, is that the 49-19 Buttfumble win in 2012 has been the anomaly; the Patriots' last four home games against the Jets were wins by an average of just four points, and the point differential in the last three overall Patriot-Jet games - the season split last year plus this game -  is just plus-2 for the Patriots.  


Shoddy third down defense has been a curious commonality for Bill Belichick defenses throughout his tenure as Patriots coach - the Patriots' Superbowl successes came by overcoming shoddy third down defense.   Being beaten at the line on defense was a disturbing pattern during this game.  


Normally I'm not a fan of establishing the run because I've seen too much football where too many downs are wasted by teams trying to run when it's not working.   The Jets were able to run surprisingly well, and I thought the Patriots might have tried running more than they did.


We're now seeing more and more teams attack Darrelle Revis differently - Revis' game is about locking onto a number-one receiver, yet in the first month of the season no opponent had a #1 receiver - and the Jets clearly had none here.   In the Bengals game Revis struggled when AJ Green stopped running routes - reading the routes beforehand is Revis' greatest strength, and it seemed to me Jets pass-catchers had their best success in similar fashion.  


Injury to Dan Connolly and rookie Bryan Stork shuffled the Patriots' offensive line again.   Rookie Jordan Devey has come under fire for poor plays this season.   Overall, though, the line played well, though mistakes still need to be cleaned up.


Danny Amendola has long been under fire for injuries and for Brady not throwing to him - but the fact is Amendola is a genuinely tough player who can take over drives.   His spectacular bail-out-Brady of a touchdown showed this again.  
It also showed that Brady will play poorly but he'll still play clutch.


The Jets players rallied to embattled coach Rex Ryan and much controversy has been expressed this week attacking Jets GM John Idzik and defending Ryan.   The problem, though, remains that Ryan is not a competent coach, and disciplinary issues on-field and poor overall coaching could be spotted here again.   The fact Ryan has failed to develop a good quarterback - while Bill Belichick helped unlock Brady's innate superstar talent, developed Matt Cassel into a capable quarterback, and may well have his star of the future in Jimmy Garoppolo - has been overlooked in the defenses offered of him.


Aaron Dobson was a healthy scratch again and some scuttlebutt I'm hearing is that Belichick is rifling shots across his bow via these benchings and Dobson has refused to notice - suggesting to me he may have an entitlement approach to his job in contrast to the hunger shown by Brian Tyms.  


After several weeks of one-sided football Thursday Night Football has now seen two suspenseful games in a row, an indication that time and patience will produce the kind of quality football people want out of these games.



The end result thus is New England's third win in a row as the rest of Week Seven awaits kickoff.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Week Seven Rolling The Dice

It's Week Seven in the NFL and some teams are rolling seven as others get snake eyes.   We make picks and offer some takes -


*****


Patriots over NY Jets - Joe Benigno went ballistic on WFAN after the Jets blew it against the Broncos.   In subsequent interviews Benigno blames the recent failures on new GM John Idzik Jr. (his dad Idzik Sr. was offensive coordinator for the Jets under Walt Michaels; according to Gerald Eskenazi he would call his players "Galumpkies"), but in reality the blame belongs on Rex Ryan.   He came in as a players coach and the inherent lack of discipline of players coaches has only gotten worse, graphically showcased by the botched timeout of coordinator Marty Morningwig in the Packers game.  Ryan's bluster is no longer working and we now understand why the Ravens wanted nothing to do with him when they were looking to replace Brian Billick after 2007.

As for the Patriots, despite the injuries of recent they appear to have solved their offensive line problems and their offense may now have the two bookend deep threats (in Brandon Lafell and Brian Tyms) it really hasn't had since the Moss-Stallworth-Gaffney period, this to go with a rejuvinated tight end attack with Gronkowski and Tim Wright.


Bills over Vikings - The Bills showed fight in Terry Pegula's first official game as Buffalo Bills owner, and they get a Vikings team that got waxed in Teddy Bridgewater's return under center.  


Ravens over Falcons - The Ravens so far are 1-2 against quality opponents but are fifth in scoring and third in fewest points allowed.   They get a Falcons team that's suddenly shown it isn't as good as advertised with nothing in the way of performance against any kind of decent opponent.


Browns over Jaguars - The Browns may have finally found the combination for which their former AFC Central stablemates are still searching.


Panthers over Packers - On paper this appears to be a mismatch in the Packers' favor, as the Panthers are 17th in scoring and 24th in points allowed.   But paper matches flame out faster - the Packers have feasted on mediocre teams and nearly blew it against the Dolphins last week while the Panthers have rebounded with a huge comeback over the Bears and the mind-blowing tie at Cincinnati.   Aaron Rodgers remains suspect as he's always been when the heat's on while Cam Newton has shown more in the way of clutchness.


Dolphins over Bears
- It's Jay Cutler and he can't sell anyone that he's all that good.   The win over the Falcons doesn't change what he is.   The Dolphins meanwhile appear to be starting to show credible improvement overall, though becoming a playoff contender remains a distant prospect.


Bengals over Colts - The Bengals answered the questions following the Sunday Night Slaughter in Foxboro by putting up 37 points against the Panthers; the gag job by kicker Mike Nugent doesn't change the Bengals staged a needed rebound.   They go to Indianapolis, a team they smashed last season and which is mediocre (again) on defense, but is nonetheless 4-2.


Lions over Saints - Surprisingly the Lions are subpar on offense but very good on defense, and the Saints have been shockingly bad on defense while Drew Brees hasn't been able to stop the bleeding of a 2-3 season so far.  


Seahawks over Rams - The home loss to the Cowboys should drive the Seahawks to take down a Rams team they've owned since the 2004 playoff loss.   The Seahawks are now in must-win territory with Arizona's surge and the 49ers' surge after a slow start.  


Titans over Redskins - The Titans got a needed win last week as their quarterback issue continues.   Charlie Whitehurst is not the long-term answer, but people are naturally frustrated Jake Locker's recovery from his thumb injury has been slower than desired.   I think Locker will be back sooner than what people presently expect.   The Titans meanwhile get a Redskins team that appears in disarray with poor play by Kirk Cousins and what may be struggle by coach Jay Gruden - the scuttlebutt I've heard is he's right now in over his head as an NFL head coach.


Chargers over Chiefs - The Chargers have surged in a big way while the Chiefs have struggled, having beaten only two quality teams (Philly and New England) since signing on Andy Reid.   Alex Smith also remains winless in his career against the Chargers.   Last year's games were epic, especially the Seyi Ajirotutu game in Kansas City, so it's reasonable to expect a points explosion here.


Cowboys over NY Giants - The Giants are 3-3 and go to Dallas where the Cowboys, to everyone's surprise, have surged into contention.   That offense that had surged in three games disappeared entirely last week and it faces a Cowboys squad that's scored at least 30 points in three of their last four contests.   Tony Romo and Eli Manning have five INTs apiece - a shocker for the normally-sloppy Romo.   The Giants run defense meanwhile allowed 698 yards so far while DeMarco Murray has put up more than that by himself.  


Cardinals over Raiders - The Raiders usually play the Chargers tough, so last week's game doesn't indicate some turnaround is beckoning - especially as the Silver And Hack face a surging Arizona team that got Carson Palmer back.


49ers over Broncos - This is where I got back out onto that limb.   The idea of Peyton Manning losing to Jim Harbaugh - his predecessor with the Colts - seems absurd.   But the Niners offense has begun picking up the last few games and the Niners are sixth in fewest points allowed.   The Broncos meanwhile have struggled to seal the deal late in games - outside of the Cardinals game the Broncos haven't been able to put teams away; they've just outlasted them, illustrated by the Aqib Talib pick six against the Jets.   The Broncos season also takes a turn for the worse after this game with a Thursday Nighter against San Diego and then the annual Brady-Manning Bowl at the Patriots.


Texans over Steelers - The Steelers are 3-3 as are the Texans, yet they couldn't be more different - the Texans are beginning to surge forward while the Steelers remain stuck in mediocrity and with more voices clamoring for the firing of coordinator Todd Haley.   The problems go beyond the infamously hotheaded Haley, though - the Steelers have not been able to build an offensive line and their defense has faltered; the draft magic of the past doesn't appear to be there now.  



And so it goes entering Talladega weekend.

Looking To The Diehard 500

NASCAR's Chase enters Talladega weekend and the prospect of better racing than what we've seen is a very good one.   There is also however the issue of what went down in the garage area after the National 500 between the Keselowski-Hamlin crash and subsequent brouhaha in the garage area.   There has already been quite the reaction to these incidents and Darrell Waltrip for one has expressed the hope that NASCAR doesn't fine any of the participants involved because it ostensibly brings some positive attention to the sport; Kevin Harvick said afterward that NASCAR "loves it."  

I don't.   And I'm not sure that many others do.

Keselowski has become a loose cannon this season, and the Winston 500 incident - downright Ernie Irvan-esque - merely hangs over his head entering the Diehard 500.   The others involved hardly qualify as professionals either, especially Denny Hamlin, a longstanding punk both on and off the track.  

It was just continuation of a long-standing and underappreciated problem in NASCAR - the fact so many of its stars are unprofessional.   Some weeks back the NY Times did a piece attacking NASCAR with one of the writers calling Tony Stewart "the sport's resident hothead."   More recently Good Morning America did a derisive and pathetically misleading account of the postrace brouhaha. That the piece made the incident out to be worse than it actually was is typical of Good Morning America and of ex-SportsCenter washout Robin Roberts, among the dumbest broadcasters the networks have seen in years.   Attacking Keselowski and company for acting in completely unprofessional manner is nonetheless legitimate.  

Unprofessionalism isn't exactly new in NASCAR - one need recall 1991 and the plethora of idiocy for much of that season between Ernie Irvan, Ricky Rudd, and others, notably at the Southeastern 500 at Bristol, the First Union 400 at North Wilkesboro, the Winston 500 at Talladega, and the Summer 500 at Pocono.   The shame of it is that season saw two outstanding races - the Michigan 400 won by Davey Allison and the Diehard 500 won by Earnhardt - that were for the most part cleanly contested.  

The best result for NASCAR from the Diehard 500 - apart from an enormous number of lead changes, an expectation despite the sanctioning body's long-standing over-officiating of restrictor plate races - is a darkhorse stealing the win, especially if it's a driver who was in the Chase but already knocked out.


*****


A stunning graphic says it all about what the Chase format has done -

Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, and Denny Hamlin only have to finish between 15th and 24th to advance to NASCAR's next Chase round. 

Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano are unlikely to do much because they already advanced to the next elimination round, and it shows that NASCAR has merely created a new form of points racing instead of leaving drivers no alternative but to go for the win.   For all the hype that the Chase format's pressure is somehow reflected in the Charlotte mess, the reality is the opposite, and it shows anew the unworkability of a playoff format for racing.  


*****


The Truck Series returns as well and the over-officiating by NASCAR hurt the racing at Daytona, though it turned out exciting in any event; chances are it will lead to a lot of frustration at Talladega as well, as 2013's running was a truly amazing battle with nonstop push-drafting, something sorely missed in all the series right now.  

The Curb Motorsports and Thorson Toyotas appear to be the hot shoes for the Talladega 250, though Kyle Busch's machines are certainly proven products.   One does wonder why Milka "Milk Dud" Duno is entered, though.  

Monday, October 13, 2014

What Week Six Forecasts

Week Six of the NFL season awaits Monday Night Football and it has seen a plethora of eye-popping moments.   Eight takeaways from this week -


*****


The Patriots are not the fading dynasty - One of the Buffalo papers did a pregame piece suggesting the Patriots were a fading dynasty.   The Patriots instead showcased they're in a transition period where they keep winning.   Despite having to put struggling rookie Jordan Devey into the offensive line's lineup, the Patriots once again handled the Bills' much-hyped defensive line, while Tom Brady's deep bomb returned.   The first bomb was a touchdown for Brian Tyms, who'd been Jimmy Garoppolo's go-to guy in preseason and had shown more than enough to take him seriously - as well as indicate the offense is being built with Garoppolo down the road in mind as well as with Brady in mind.


The Steelers are becoming irrelevant in the AFC North - They're not the same old Browns, and the Steelers once again prove they're not the same Steelers, which means the AFC North is now a three-way race and the Steelers have fallen out of it.   The Browns are now making legitimate noise, the Ravens continue to showcase an explosiveness on offense not seen since Anthony Wright's late-2003 points eruption (scoring 31 or more points in four of Baltimore's last six games that year), and the Bengals get the tie to stop the bleeding of the massacre in Foxboro, though Mike Nugent's clutchness comes into question after his awful shank-job of a kick.  


The Cowboys - for now - look like the real deal - Beating the Seahawks in Seattle is the eye-opener of the weekend and DeMarco Murray is making a case for league MVP.   We shouldn't be fooled by this, though, given Tony Romo's inevitable display of ineptitude.   It's all made the NFC East a two-way fight between the Eagles and Cowboys, though the Giants may still get something going.


The Broncos are showing they can't seal the deal - The Broncos loafed on a lead against the NY Jets and needed a dumb throw by Geno Smith - turned into a pick six by Aqib Talib - to win 31-17, this after racing to a lead but not putting the Jets away.   It was the exact same pattern shown against the Colts and Chiefs, and it's cropped up again.   It bodes ill going forward with San Diego and New England - both surging - looming in a few weeks.


***


The Colts are still tops in the AFC South - They did, however, get a scare from a Houston team clawing its way back to competitive legitimacy.   Any threat from the Titans or Jaguars appears gone as the Jaguars still try to get a win while the Titans struggle through quarterback issues.


The NFC North stays mediocre - The Packers pulled off the win at Miami and had a fight on their hands to get it - even to using a fake spike throw in the final seconds.   The Lions meanwhile manhandled the slumping Vikings and the Bears got the win over a Falcons team that's not what we thought they were.   Nowhere do any of these teams exhibit the kind of muscle needed to take the next step.


The Panthers begin pulling away in the NFC South - The Bucs were ripped to shreds so fast the audience at Raymond James Stadium left by halftime and didn't come back.   The Falcons have begun to falter again, and the Saints go through their bye week wondering what happened to their season.   The Panthers got the ultimate head-scratcher of a tie game at Cincinnati, but a tie is better than a loss and it's helping them inch away in the division.


The Jets need to clean house - yet again - Rex Ryan has proven he should not have been hired to begin with as the Jets prove themselves dysfunctional and incapable of getting it right.   The attempt in some quarters to shift blame to John Idzik is pathetic because the collapse of the Jets was visible to all even when the Jets made the playoffs in Ryan's first two seasons - the lack of discipline, the fact the offense had to be dumbed down for Mark Sanchez, and the inability to take any next step.   It's the same old Jets, and that there is talk of drafting Jameis Winston because of the need for a Name shows people STILL won't get it.   The Jets need to build a program, they need to stop falling in love with Names, and they need to stop caring about what the back page says. 



So it goes as we await Monday Night's mayhem involving the NFC West.