Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Some Takes As NFL Enters 2014

We are now closing rapidly upon the beginning of the 2014 NFL season, and as the final preseason games approach, some thoughts on the coming season -


EASTERN DIVISIONS, SAME STORY - In the Eastern Divisions of both conferences the story is the same - New England and Philadelphia are head and shoulders atop, the other six teams are playing for 8-8.   The 42-35 preseason game between the Patriots and Eagles got a lot of flack for the enormity of penalties - and also got some pub because one of referee John Parry's line judges is one of the first ladies to officiate and NFL game, Maia Chaka - but the enormity of scoring by all three strings of both teams plus the need for a Patriots goalline stand to win it was competitively compelling, preseason or not.   Both appear to be playoff locks already.

That isn't the case for the other six teams.   The Giants and Jets played a good competitive game and it illustrated some decent form for Jets quarterbacks while raising questions about the Giants, who won 35-24 after trailing in the battle of the Ones 17-14.   Even with that, the Jets do not look all that strong and neither do the Giants.   Meanwhile Miami has shown some improvement but not enough, especially from Ryan Tannehill, to feel they've turned a corner.   The Cowboys meanwhile look the same - some flashy high-end talent but overrated quarterbacking and the spectacle of Dez Bryant's contract now hanging over Valley Ranch's head. 

The Redskins and Bills face the biggest questions as Robert Griffin III has clearly regressed and Kirk Cousins is outplaying him, while the Bills have brawled repeatedly and have ignored Doug Marrone about it, a very bad sign that they've quit on him.   E.J, Manual meanwhile has looked scared when playing with no evidence of any advancement as a quarterback, an even worse sign that 2014 will not be the beginning of a turnaround, but instead a further collapse of an organization already traumatized by the continuing ownership search.


AFC NORTH LOOKS GOOD, NFC NORTH MEDIOCRE - The Bengals remain the team to beat in the AFC North, but the Baltimore Ravens look noticeably better than the squad that fell to 8-8 after blowing itself up to pay Joe Flacco.   Ex-Panther Steve Smith has put up some eye-popping numbers and looks like a good fit with the Ravens.    The Steelers in contrast look lost still, unable to build an offensive line that's any good yet again.  

The trainwreck here is the Browns, who've lost Josh Gordon for the year and perhaps 2015 and are stuck with Johnny Manziel after a tellingly subpar effort against the Redskins and an uneven one against the Rams.   Manziel looks more and more like Ryan Leaf the more we see him play.

In the NFC the North exudes little confidence.   The Detroit Lions look okay but remain needing to prove they can win more than they have with a roster as talented as any.    The Packers haven't shown they're any better than last year and the Bears were abysmal against the Seahawks, sign Jay Cutler will once again put up meaningless volume stats.   The Vikings have an intriguing quarterback issue in Teddy Bridgewater, who looks like he will become starter in a year or two.


WILL THE SOUTH RISE AGAIN? - The top three quarterbacks in preseason play have been Tom Brady, Peyton Manning..............and the Titans' Jake Locker at 119.9 rating.   Andrew Luck and the Colts overall look solid again despite a subpar effort against the Saints, but the Titans with a new coaching staff in Ken Whisenhunt still show promise of a breakout.   The teams also to keep an eye on are the Houston Texans - who rebounded from a horrid first preseason game to show some legitimate form and have Bill O'Brien as head coach after his amazing job at the trainwreck that was Penn State - and the Jacksonville Jaguars as they have a potential quarterback of the future in Blake Bortles.

In the NFC the New Orleans Saints are yet again ready to explode.   The Carolina Panthers have been somewhat shaky in preseason, especially in a godawful performance against the Patriots, but still look stout enough to contend for the title.   There have been signs of improvement in Atlanta and Tampa Bay, though I have questions about Logan Mankins in Tampa given he was overrated despite being Pro Bowl caliber anyway, and there was the sharp decline of his play in Foxboro after giving up eleven sacks in 2013.


GO WEST - The obvious starting point is the Seahawks - the one thing right now that stands in their way is the Superbowl winner's jinx, where no defending champ has won a playoff game since the 2005 Patriots beat the Jaguars.   Even getting fined $300,000 (a third of it from Pete Carroll) by the league over off-season practices that were too physical isn't going to affect the Seahawks.

The team they beat in the Superbowl also looks ready, but not as good as last year's squad.  Peyton Manning's play has come under some fire over leaving Wes Welker in effect out to dry on the Texans hit and the fact is he remains the worst playoff quarterback since Dan Marino. That the Texans put up a legitimate fight in their game against Denver should be an encouraging sign for Broncos opponents.

The baffling team is the Chargers, who looked abysmal against Seattle and San Francisco after embarrassing the Cowboys.  One wonders how hard the Chargers were even trying there.

Kansas City is the puzzle, for the Chiefs have looked weaker now than last year, and their schedule is much harder than 2013.   Alex Smith is not the answer and it's puzzling Andy Reid isn't trying to develop a successor.

Back on the NFC side the 49ers suddenly look in trouble, even with a win over the Chargers.   Their quarterbacks have not shown competent play and one has to wonder if Colin Kaepernick is as good as people thought he was.   In even worse shape with quarterbacking is the Rams, minus Sam Bradford amid rumors of a possible effort to get Mark Sanchez or Ryan Mallett (and yes the Tim Tebow lobbying has been detected - ugh).

The team that may upset everyone is the Cardinals - they've become legitimately good and can get better, though Carson Palmer cannot be the long-term answer.  


So it goes as we claw toward Week One of the season.

Oh, I forgot - the Raiders are a lost cause. 

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Monday, August 18, 2014

NASCAR's Wrongheaded Ethic Strikes Again

NASCAR now has a new rule - or a renewed emphasis on an existing one - whereby it requires drivers to stay in their racecars after an accident. It typifies NASCAR's ethic of "there ought to be a rule" against something, much like the absurdly common refrain "there ought to be a law." But as is so often the case with NASCAR, the new rule is based on a fundamentally flawed premise.

As Road And Track shows, these stay-in-your-car rules simply don't work. The scenario of a new rule solving nothing and instead creating more problems is a scenario we've usually seen from NASCAR over the years, notably with its preposterous "safety" rules for pit road stemming from a problem NASCAR itself created - closing pit road beginning in March 1989 that created more pit crashes, a result never made better by subsequent pit speed limit rules.   We also saw this with NASCAR's ridiculous out-of-bounds rule and freezing the field, neither of which has made anything safer (see the Ryan Newman crash at Watkins Glen for the continued worthlessness of freezing the field).

The new rule comes from the Tony Stewart disaster with Kevin Ward, and the approach of adding a new rule shows a bigger problem - the refusal of racing to hold someone accountable.   The solution to this particular issue is not - and never will be - adding a new rule.   The solution is to hold the responsible driver accountable, and it is Tony Stewart.  

NASCAR needs to be taking away rules, not adding new ones.   Pit road needs to revert to the rule package of 1988 and before - pit road stays open at all times, drivers enter and exit when they want, at what speed they want, and they must pay attention to where pit crewmen are; this was fundamentally a safer environment than the one that has been prevalent the last 25 years.   Take away out-of-bounds lines and let the racers race back to the line when the caution comes out; freezing the field has not prevented one crash.   Don't legislate when drivers can exit their racecars; if something like what Tony Stewart did happens again, then hold the specific driver accountable. 

The American Banking System Might Not Last Until Monday

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Monday, August 11, 2014

NASCAR's Eye-Popping Year, And It Isn't Over Yet

NASCAR has struggled in the last decade and plus as its popularity has declined and the costs and absurdity of its economics have taken a toll on raceteams and speedways.   2014 was promised to be something different with yet another wrinkle to Brian France's absurd Chase format.  

Yet as the NASCAR tour heads to Michigan International Speedway for the Yankee 400, the stunning win by AJ Allmendinger over Marcos Ambrose and the ferocity of the racing at Watkins Glen - not to mention the ferocity of the numerous crashes - have made one reflect that this season has turned into one that has genuine reason to be remembered.  

The sport's most popular driver is Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Junior has finally found the groove in his racing career that's been missing.  He's raced to win, and has won three times, from the Daytona 500 through his sweep of Pocono, the first driver to do the Tim Richmond sweep since Denny Hamlin.  And once again the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut has won a lot, highlighted also by Jeff Gordon's resurgance to reach 90 wins - though chronic back issues have plagued Gordon recently.

And Gordon's back hasn't been the biggest story at the Hendrick shop - Jimmie Johnson's campaign for the seventh series title has been bombed like the PLO by crashes and mechanical failures, and suddenly the #48 team that looked a Cup title lock no longer is. 

While Hendrick has run up more wins, the resurgance the sport has seen - and needed - has been from Richard Petty's organization.   Aric Almirola's surge to competitive legitimacy has been striking and the return of the #43 to the Firecracker 400 victory 30 years after the STP Pontiac's historic triumph has only been liberating.   A NASCAR season where Earnhardt Junior is winning has certainly benefitted the sport; that same season seeing Richard Petty's team winning again is the ultimate fusion of the old guard and the new - a fusion that is only right.

Watkins Glen brought these trains of thought on a curious collision course as multiple melees affected the field and put a damper on a stunning slugfest of a finish between Petty's #9 car of Marcos Ambrose and the Brad Daugherty #47 driven by Petty's former driver in AJ Allmendinger.   Coming after Ambrose drove a Petty car to win the Busch Series 200 the day before, the weekend was a Petty-themed weekend the sport hasn't seen to this level in many, many years.  

And the finish at Watkins Glen brought out some of the vinegar seen in other races, such as the two Daytona races, Talladega, and the NASCAR Modifieds at New Hampshire, races where passing and repassing were the focal point and the winner got the win by outfighting the field.


Yet hanging over everything was the ugliness of an upstate dirt track set-to between Tony Stewart and local racer Kevin Ward where Stewart ran over Ward and thus took his life.   It brought out the uglier side of recent NASCAR history and the surge to success of drivers displaying the kind of irresponsible deportment that leads to situations like what happened the night before the Watkins Glen NASCAR GP.   Drivers getting out of their cars to call out those who raced them dirty is universal to racing, and cars calmly drive by even when helmets are thrown at windshields - or even when we see situations such as at Stafford Speedway years back where a driver hammered by another car jumped onto the hood of the offending car trying to get the ignition wires.   That Stewart did not calmly drive by with enough opportunity to do so is the gravely disturbing reality of this situation - one simply cannot concoct a scenario exonerating Stewart here, though it hasn't stopped multiple forums from being filled with nonsensical condemnation of Ward for walking toward Stewart's car.

Even if running over the other driver was indeed accidental, Stewart is still guilty of gross stupidity in not paying enough attention to see Ward walking onto the racetrack - as other cars did in calmly driving by him without any harm.  And it bears remembering it began with a hard sideswipe by Stewart that took out Ward's racecar.   Slide job crashes are not uncommon in dirt racing - or even asphalt oval track racing for that matter - but most are not malicious.   Stewart's history, though, carries a malicious quality to wrecks in which he's been involved.    And NASCAR's recent generation of racers has seen numerous others who display a similar level of psychotic quality to their racing - Carl Edwards and his numerous crashes, notably his savagery in encounters with Brad Keselowski; Joey Logano and the 2009 Irwindale melee that has carried over at times to his Cup career (notably the Fontana crash with Denny Hamlin); the Busch brothers, widely hated by fans for derangement spanning years; even Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have displayed heavy rap sheets of tearing up someone else's sheetmetal.

And there is the overlooked fact his Winston Cup raceteam issued a statement early Sunday morning that Stewart would race and it was "business as usual," a statement that raised eyebrows on such non-racing forums as WEEI Radio in Boston.   It was around noon that Stewart announced he would withdraw from the race and Regan Smith would take over the #14 that Sunday.   That timeline looks suspicious, like Stewart was going to race as though nothing had happened and had to be persuaded at the last hour not to go through with it.

In the past the likes of Ernie Irvan and Ricky Rudd were drivers under the microscope following brutal on-track set-tos; the upshot is Irvan wound up paying the price as his own injuries ultimately ended his career.   One now wonders if Tony Stewart pays some price, not in injury but in the cloud that will hang over him now.  


With the Yankee 400 at Michigan the sport returns to the big tracks still grappling with the technology arms race and its harmful effect on passing - ironically shown in a recent K&N series race at Iowa Speedway (won by Brandon Jones, who looks all of thirteen years of age even though he's older) where the cars, running on bias ply tires instead of radials, were four abreast for the lead in a wild ten-lap battle to the finish.   Should Michigan see racing like this the sport will take another step forward in making itself better.  

And it will showcase how a season already shocking isn't over yet.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Tony Stewart In Big Trouble

Tony Stewart is in huge trouble after this crash and follow-up encounter at a New York dirt track the night before the Watkins Glen demolition derby.   Having followed Stewart since his USAC days, I've always sensed a psychotic streak in him and his wrecks, explosions of anger, and occasional fits of buck-passing in postrace interviews always gave me the sense of someone who didn't like accountability.  

What matters the most is remembering Kevin Ward, the sprint car racer killed in this ugly brouhaha.   His family has now come out against Stewart, this amid absurd alibis offered on multiple forums.   NASCAR beat writer Tom Sorenson acknowledges the open secret of Stewart's temper, where I would go further - Stewart is psychotic.

MRN racecaster Dave Moody authors this defense of Stewart where he proclaims, "nothing in his background......rises to the level of intentionally striking a fellow racer" who is on foot with his racecar. "Tony Stewart is no killer."  Perhaps this is what Stewart defenders are truly afraid of - that one of NASCAR's greatest racers really is no better than OJ Simpson.   The idea that Stewart would stoop that low clearly is too much for many to believe.   But the reality of the incident and Stewart's overall background leaves it impossible to credibly absolve him, and the absurdity of the attempts in numerous quarters to somehow palm off blame onto Kevin Ward is truly repellant.  

Perhaps people need to change their opinion and face that one of NASCAR's greatest racers really isn't any better than OJ Simpson.