Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Big Balls

Oh, that tricky Bill Belichick is at it again.  Or so it seems.

Just as "Spygate" has faded from our memories, now "Deflategate" is the hot new topic in the American sports lexicon.
I had to dust off this little gem from 2007.

I won't go into all the details, because if you're smart enough to be reading this, then you already know the details.  I must admit it is difficult to know how to react (or overreact) to this latest New England shenanigan.

The excuse makers (i.e. Patriots sympathizers) are out en masse right now, yet nothing they say holds water.

Exhibit A:

"If under-inflating the footballs made such a difference, why didn't the officials notice?"  Um... that's why this sh*tstorm started, because the officials did notice.  And that's why all 24 game balls were inspected again at halftime and the Patriots' disparity was discovered.

In fact, at one point during the first half, umpire Carl Paganelli noticed the Patriots ball seemed under-inflated and brought it to referee Walt Anderson's attention.  A new ball was put into play and the camera actually cut to the Patriots ball boy running to get another football out of the ball bag on the sideline.  Were any of the naysayers watching this game?

Exhibit B:

"It was cold, so the footballs lost air pressure."  Temperature at kick-off was 51°F.  It didn't get anywhere near freezing at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.  And somehow, the Colts' game balls did not lose air pressure (they were checked at halftime as well).

The problem was, as I understand it, discovered and corrected at the half.  In the second half, the Patriots played with footballs which met NFL specifications.  And yes, the Patriots beat the living tar out of the Colts.

Do I think tampering with the game balls made any difference in the outcome of this game?  No.

So what's the big deal, you ask?

The big deal is this: The same team which was caught videotaping its opponent's defensive signals in 2007 (and punished harshly for it), has been caught cheating again.

At first glance, it appears Bill Belichick and the Patriots are still of the opinion that NFL rules and guidelines do apply to them.

However, since news of "Deflategate" broke, several former players have stepped forward to say "doctoring" footballs happens all the time.

Most surprisingly, former Super Bowl champion Brad Johnson admitted he paid a bribe of $7,500 to have Super Bowl XXXVII game balls "scuffed and ready, to get them right."

Johnson never mentioned anything about under-inflating or over-inflating, but he did covertly put money under the table to get the footballs ready to his liking.

Aaron Rodgers admitted yesterday that he likes his footballs "over-inflated."

Former Heisman Trophy winner and first round bust Matt Leinart tweeted today, "Every team tampers with footballs.  Ask any QB in the league, this is ridiculous!"

Even before the Vikings/Panthers game on November 30, 2014, ball boys for both teams were seen on camera heating up game balls on the sideline before being instructed to cease and desist by NFL officials.

Clearly, doctoring footballs is something that's been happening for years.  The NFL allows its very rules to be stretched a bit and that's not really the big concern here, even though that is in itself a double standard.

To me, the big concern is the track record that Belichick and the Patriots have; their lack of integrity, their total disregard for the rulebook and their relentless drive to push beyond the limits, regardless of the consequences.

Then again, this is their sixth Super Bowl appearance since 2002, and they've won three of them.

Principles and honor are nice, but the goal is to win the Lombardi Trophy.  At the end of the day, nothing else really matters.

That's the cold, hard truth.  And that's the cut-throat business of winning in the NFL.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Never Play Not to Lose

I know the feeling all too well.  Gut wrenching.

It didn't apply to me on Sunday, but I know the feeling.  I am a Vikings fan from birth to earth; the Packers are my sworn enemy, my arch rival.  But I have plenty of friends who are Packers fans.  And Sunday was one of those gut wrenching days.

From my perspective, Sunday's NFC Championship game was a game for the ages.  An epic comeback by the Seahawks and colossal letdown by the Packers.  I had no emotional investment in the game, but for those who did -- especially Packers fans -- I've been there.  Twice.

The Packers lost on Sunday for the same reason the Vikings lost to Atlanta in the 1999 NFC Championship game:  Lack of aggressiveness.  When you play not to lose, you are playing to lose.

Period.  That's never changed and it never will change.

The Packers intercepted three Russell Wilson passes and forced a fumble on a kick off return in the first half.  

Winning the battle on special teams and creating turn overs: that's the formula for winning football games.  And the Packers were dominating in both categories at half time.

In retrospect it is very easy to argue Mike McCarthy was not aggressive enough in the first quarter.  In back-to-back drives, it was 4th and goal with the ball inside the one yard line.  Eddie Lacy and John Kuhn could not punch the ball in... but what if they gave it one more try?

We won't know, because both times McCarthy elected to kick a field goal.  He took the points.  You could say he was too conservative; however, it's just as easy to argue he made the right football decision at that time.

I don't have a problem with McCarthy taking the field goals.  But what happened in the second half is a different story.

The turning point in the game was in the 3rd quarter and it came with an aggressive call from Seattle.
The Seahawks had the ball on Green Bay's 19 yard line.  It was 4th and 10, Steven Hauschka was lined up for a 36 yard field goal.

In a master stroke, Pete Carroll called a very gutsy fake field goal (on 4th and 10, remember!).  The fake was successful, completely taking the Packers by surprise and resulted in a touchdown.

Aggressiveness wins championships.

The momentum shifted... at least for a short time.

Aaron Rodgers settled the troops (as he does) and Mason Crosby connected on a 48 yard field goal early in the 4th quarter to give the Packers the lead, 19-7.

When Packers strong safety Morgan Burnett intercepted yet another Russell Wilson pass with 5:04 in the fourth quarter, the game was over.  Or so I thought.

Inexplicably, at Julius Peppers' signal, Burnett took a knee after returning the ball just four yards, down at Green Bay's own 43 yard line, despite the fact that he could have returned to ball at least 10 yards... probably much more.

Playing not to lose.  It loses championships.

Protecting a 19-7 lead, the Packers predictably fed Eddie Lacy the ball on the subsequent three downs, resulting in -4 yards.

Playing not to lose.  It loses championships.

Packers punter Tim Masthay then shanked a punt for just 30 yards.

The Seahawks took over on their own 31 yard line with 3:52 left in the game, trailing 19-7.

One minute, forty-three seconds and 69 yards later, the Seahawks score a touchdown.

The onside kick is successfully recovered by Seattle.  Hold on now, this could get interesting.

The Seahawks take over with 2:09 left.  Forty-four seconds and 52 yards later, another touchdown.

Then, a ridiculous up-for-grabs two point conversion is good.

In about two and a half minutes, the Seahawks went from trailing 19-7 to leading 22-19.

I sat on my couch in disbelief.  Did all of this really happen?  So many things had to go perfectly right for Seattle in such a short amount of time.  Sort of makes you wonder if all of their karma was used in this game, doesn't it?

They were partying at Century Link Field, but I said aloud (to myself, since no one was watching the game with me), "There's 1:25 left.  Aaron Rodgers has the ball.  Don't pop the champagne quite yet."

Sure enough, Rodgers put his team in position for a field goal (as he does) and Crosby converted another 48 yard attempt.  Tie game with 19 seconds left.  Overtime.  Unbelievable.

As we all know, the Seahawks won in overtime, ending it quickly on the first possession, as Russell Wilson went deep to Javon Kearse, who finally caught a pass (rather than tipping one) in the end zone.  Game over.

Aggressiveness wins championships.

I felt exhausted just watching the game, but it reinforced why I love the game of football so much.  The emotion, the battle, the intensity, the determination, the fight, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.  You just cannot beat playoff football.

We can only hope the Super Bowl is half as good.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

I'm Good At Being Wrong and Other Things...

I'm so glad I'm not a betting man.  I'd be living in a cardboard box right now.

I've tried prognosticating games many times on this site and I'm almost always wrong.  Every time I try predicting the outcome of a game, I can give you a money-back guarantee that the result will be the opposite of what I think.

It's kind of a gift when you think about it.

For instance, last week, I did not see the Colts marching into Mile High and beating the Broncos on their own field.  I did not think the "one dimensional" Colts could outscore Peyton Manning and his embarrassment of weapons.  I thought the Broncos had the better team on both sides of the ball.

But you want to know the truth of the matter?  Peyton Manning is showing his age.  He's clearly not the quarterback he was just a couple of years ago.  Yes, word has leaked out since the game that Manning was playing on a severed leg (or something like that), but I'm not one for excuses after a loss.

The fact is Manning was 2 of 12 on passes over 15 yards downfield.  That's Akili Smith stuff, right there.

But it wasn't all on Manning.  DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller took a vacation as well.

Take all of the above and combine it with Dan Herron carrying the ball 23 times and scoring a touchdown on the ground, the Colts presented an unexpected and quite effective balanced attack.

Shortly after the loss, John Fox made a very hasty exit (an indication that, clearly, something was rotten in the state of Denmark Denver).  Less than a week later, Fox was named the new head coach of the Chicago Bears.  Love 'em, leave 'em.

Keep your head on a swivel.  Things move fast.

Jack Del Rio spent the last two years as John Fox's defensive coordinator.  Del Rio is now head honcho of the Oakland Raiders, having accepted the head coaching position this week.

Del Rio was the Jacksonville Jaguars head coach for nine seasons and got them to the playoffs twice, a feat that seems out of the pages of Mission Impossible right now.

I've always liked Del Rio, since his days of suiting up for the Vikings in the early and mid-1990's.  I hope he has good luck with the Raiders; but, man, he's walking into a mess.

It didn't take Rex Ryan long to find a new home, either.  Now head coach of the Buffalo Bills, Ryan had his swagger back at his introductory press conference.  I like the fact that he's a smart ass again.  The league needs a loud mouth.
Hey everybody!  I'm an insufferable jackass again!  Woo-hoo!
I also like the fact that he stayed in the same division.  If anything, it will make for great headlines when the Bills play the Jets twice next year.

Todd Bowles was finally offered a head coaching position, quietly filling Rex Ryan's shoes with the New York Jets.  Bowles will be entering his 20th year as a coach in the NFL.  He was the interim head coach for the Miami Dolphins when Tony Sparano was canned late in the 2011 season.  Bowles won two of the three games he was interim big shot in Miami.

Lastly, another coach who has put in his time, Jim Tomsula, was offered the San Francisco 49ers head coaching job this week.  Tomsula had been in NFL Europe for nine years and with the 49ers organization for another six years.  Little known fact: Tomsula was actually the 49ers interim head coach for one game, week 17 of the 2010 season, after Mike Singletary was fired.


But let's not forget about the big games this Sunday.  My gut feeling is we will be seeing a Seattle Seahawks/New England Patriots Super Bowl (Quick! Place your bets on the opposite in Vegas right now!).

I'm obviously not giving the Colts enough credit.  I didn't think they would beat the Bengals in the Wild Card round.  I certainly didn't think they would beat the Broncos in the Division round.

And, likewise, I don't think they will beat the Patriots at Foxboro.

I don't care for the Patriots, but this is still my favorite logo of all time.  I wish they would go back to these helmets and uniforms... might become a fan.
Add to the fact that the Patriots are a machine at home; they have lost just six homes games (regular season and playoffs) in the last five seasons combined (their record at home during that time is an insane 41-6)... well, I just can't take the Colts.

Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't mind watching Tom Brady's mascara run in tears of defeat.  I'm not a Patriots fan in the least, but Andrew Luck and his gang have got their work cut out for them in the bowels of Gillette Stadium.

In the NFC, it will be shocking to me if Aaron Rodgers is able to dismantle the Seahawks defense with one leg tied behind his back (so to speak).

Rodgers was immobile against the Cowboys last weekend, yet Dallas' defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli was content to send three or four pass rushers each play.  I didn't understand the strategy then and I don't understand it now.  Yes, Rodgers can kill you if you blitz, but this wasn't the discount double check Aaron Rodgers.

This Rodgers was gimpy, incapable of moving out of the pocket.  That is, until he got his pain killer at halftime.  Did anyone else notice it was a tale of two halves?

Seattle will be far, far more aggressive than the Cowboys attack.  Defensively, they are much faster than Dallas and they have more talent.  When these two teams met week 1 of this season, it was a blow out: Seattle won 36-16.  That was when Aaron Rodgers was fresh and healthy.

I don't see the Packers winning this game, which concerns me.  As I said at the beginning of this ramble, I'm really good at being wrong... and I really hate the Packers.

The Pack need a little Favre magic on Sunday

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Finding a Way

There is nothing like playoff football and a championship game has an intensity unrivaled by anything.  There is simply nothing like it.

Yesterday afternoon I witnessed one of the best football games I've ever seen.  It was the FCS Division I National Championship between Illinois State and North Dakota State.

And before you scoff at the "small time" connotations, you need to understand this was one of the hardest hitting, cleanest played, classic, throwback gridiron battles you could ever wish to see.  If you love football, you would have loved this game.

I had a vested interest in the game.  I married into a family of North Dakota State graduates and I've been following the football program for quite some time.  Even though I graduated from the University of Minnesota, I find it much more satisfying to cheer for the Bison.

First, Fargo, North Dakota (the location of the NDSU campus) is just two hours my home.

Second, NDSU is a smaller school with a big reputation.  I graduated from a very small high school with a big reputation.  I definitely feel a connection.

Third, many of the NDSU players are from those same small high schools in Minnesota and North Dakota. Many of the players were never even considered for scholarships at bigger schools (such as University of Minnesota).  Yet, those players have consistently beaten FBS schools (Kansas State, Iowa State, Minnesota, Kansas and Colorado State have all fallen to the Bison in the last five years).

I call that poetic justice.

Yesterday's game was a tremendous back and forth battle between two excellent teams.  The Bison led 10-7 at halftime, but I had an ominous feeling about the second half.

After the Bison took a 20-7 lead halfway through the third quarter, Illinois State went on the offensive, literally.  The next 12 minutes was a smash mouth slug fest.

The Bison led 23-21 late in the fourth quarter when Illinois State quarterback Tre Roberson, who was a pain in the NDSU's back side all day long, ripped off a 58 yard touchdown run with just 1:38 left in the game.

As Roberson broke into the secondary with not a Bison defender in sight, I said to myself, "It's over."

The Bison trailed 27-23 with 98 seconds left, and it truly looked like their remarkable three consecutive national championship run was coming to an end.

Our lucky sign in our yard.  It worked its magic one last time on Saturday.

The ensuing kick-off was modestly returned to the Bison 22 yard line, and a false start penalty pushed the Bison back even further.  "It's really over," I said again.  After all, Illinois State had a hard-nosed defense and I didn't see the Bison traveling 83 yards for a score with so little time remaining.

But, like they say, a true champion finds a way to win. [cue the theme song to "Rocky"]

Suddenly, quarterback Carson Wentz came alive, firing lasers to freshman R.J. Urzendowski three times for 78 yards in a blitzkreig attack, before Wentz took matters into his own hands and plowed into the end zone on a five yard dive with 37 seconds remaining.

I sat on my couch in disbelief.  Did this just happen?

An 83 yard TD drive in 61 seconds.  The score was 29-27.  The Bison PAT would extend the lead by three points.

But Illinois State blocked the extra point.  Unbelievable!!  Could this game possibly be more dramatic?

Now Illinois State could win the game with a field goal.  They had 37 seconds left and had already proven they could move the ball quickly down the field.

The drama and stress was almost unbearable.

Sure as sh*t, Illinois State, in balls-out hurry-up mode, started driving after the ensuing kick-off.

However, the Bison defense (which did not have the best of days) rose to the occasion by intercepting an Illinois State pass with just eight seconds remaining.

Champions find a way to win.  And the NDSU Bison set an FCS record with four consecutive national championships.  Unprecedented.  Unreal.  Unbelievable.

I ended the day self-medicating to steady my nerves.  As Keith Jackson used to say, "Whoa, Nelly!"