Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Rating Nashville's TV Sports Talking Heads

Sports is the “toy department” of television reporting. People don’t sell their first-born to get into TV sports because they love reporting—they do it because a) they love the sports themselves and b) the pay is great compared to other media.

In the “old days,” you used to have to have a certain agreeable look to get into television. You also had to have a demonstrably mellifluous or resonant voice. In the old days, guys went to “broadcasting school,” then worked their way up the ladder. Or, they trained as journalists, then made the transition to TV once they were deemed to have the appropriately telegenic looks and voice. After all, why slog away writing several thousand words worth of newspaper copy for $250 a week, when you can report a fraction of that on television for $1000 a week?

There's an article available on the Web [click here] that asks the hilarious question, "Does Being an Athlete Help You Get a Job in Television?" Well, we know that being a jock doesn't necessarily propel anyone into the "CBS Evening News" anchor chair. Yet the jocks who've already made millions on the gridiron or on the basketball court segue with ease into highly paid television sports jobs.

Fact is, there are many talented writers and would-be broadcasters who haven't a snowball's chance in hell of breaking in to TV sports. Woe especially to any non-minority male of non-jock persuasion who might try to bang his head getting into electronic sports media. A guy like that has various major obstacles to hurdle in securing these positions. The insurmountable modern trends include:

1. The firmly entrenched “good ol’ boy” network of non-jock males already in the profession.

2. The tendency of networks to tap has-been jocks to appear on broadcasts as “experts.”

3. The increasing encroachment of women into historically male arenas of employment.

All of these realities play themselves out in Nashville’s world of TV sports. It might be interesting to apply the standards of the “old days” to these lucky folks with the plum jobs. So, in the interests of consumer advocacy—and also to have a little fun—let’s rate the Nashville TV sports talking heads. Let’s see how they measure up to various standards, including presence, vocal quality, authority, and general appeal.

1. John Dwyer WKRN-Channel 2’s sports director is also Music City’s leading sports talking head. Dwyer is nice-looking, poised, confident, has a resonant voice, and speaks with authority. His work is wholly articulate and virtually mistake-free. He’s also leading the league in double-dipping, hosting a radio show on 106.7 WFAN and also Channel 2’s “The Jeff Fisher Show” (aka "Monday Night Live with Jeff Fisher"). Dwyer also has a blog—http://www.dwyerwire.com. Staying so busy helps to keep him ahead of the pack. Heck, he's even doing the Lottery broadcast. (Yet no one is perfect: Dwyer recently referred to New York Jets center Kevin Mawae as Kevin MOW-y. It's pronounced Ma-WIGH.)

2. Hope Hines Avuncular WTVF-Channel 5 veteran Hines is still very good at what he does. His manner may be old school but it doesn’t get in the way of a solid, straightforward sports report. He’s authoritative and generally error-free, he injects some personality into his reportage, and in general handles the gig with smooth professionalism throughout. Maybe he ought to be good after all these years, but the important thing is that he still holds his own with the competition.

3. Aaron Solomon For a second banana on WSMV-Channel 4, Solomon sure looks like a first-stringer. He’s assured and mistake-free, with a gentle but firm voice, and he also has a knack for infusing his report with subtle levity. He could be a lead sports anchor anywhere. The miracle is that he’s not on his own station.

4. Cory Curtis Curtis is in the strange position of having to carry John Dwyer’s jockstrap. Curtis looks the TV part to a tee—he’s handsome (but not a pretty-boy), has a very resonant voice, and delivers the news soundly. He looks a little self-conscious at times, especially on “The Jeff Fisher Show,” when he has to share the podium with Dwyer. It’s hard to be #2, though, especially when you might want to be #1. Nevertheless, he does a solid pro-level job.

5. Rudy Kalis Maybe if Channel 4 top dog Rudy Kalis could bring his voice down an octave or so, he’d project a little more of the kind of macho we’ve come to expect in our sports broadcasters. The high pitch, coupled with an overly folksy delivery, give the impression that Rudy might be more comfortable leading a Boy Scout troop on a hike than he is talking Vols football. Car racing really gets his motor running, which makes sense in the South; still, he reads a little too “small market” to be believed. (I’ll bet he hangs out with radio nimrod George Plaster.) To the good, Kalis is a vet who knows how to read the news professionally, and no one can say he isn’t enthusiastic about his work.

6. Steve Wrigley If it’s tough being #2, imagine how it is being #3. Wrigley cleans up after Kalis and Solomon on Channel 4. He’s not bad at all, delivering a straightforward, enthusiastic report, into which he tries to inject some “Isn’t sports great?” personality. Wrigley doesn’t stand out among the crowd, but he’s a perfectly acceptable sports talking head.

7. Mark Howard Channel 5’s Howard is a sober, dry reporter who sometimes looks like he needs an enema. His overwrought delivery rings false and at the same time verges on boring because his basic vocal pattern is monotonous. Plus, the fact is that he just doesn’t look very comfortable on-air. He rarely smiles (the accompanying photo notwithstanding), and watching and listening to him almost becomes a chore. Maybe he’s just insecure. He efficiently reads the TelePrompTer, though. Howard occasionally writes a sports column for the Nashville City Paper. It’s a decent effort.

8. Paul Jones WZTV-Channel 17 is Nashville’s FOX station, and Jones is the main sports guy. If he weren’t doing sports for a profession, I’d peg Jones for one of two other professions: taking over for the late Fred Rogers on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” or teaching a classroom of middle-schoolers. How this guy has stayed employed in the sports world I’ll never know. Maybe it’s just that he’s not what you’d expect. He delivers the facts all right, but he reads very “soft” visually. He’s soft-spoken as well, and that doesn’t help to meet our preconceived expectations of the resonant sports anchor. It’s not that the FOX sports report is bad, it’s just that it’s hard to take Jones seriously.

9. Eric Yutzy Yutzy is Music City’s “young African American male sports reporter” and the #3 personality on Channel 5. He’s trying so hard to be relevant that he practically jumps out through the TV screen. Poor guy, he obviously wants to impress his elders and gain acceptance. He can read the news for sure, but it’s damn irritating how obviously he’s trying to push himself across as “authoritative.” Maybe that’s because it’s easy to surmise that he doesn’t nearly know as much factually or historically as your average radio call-in slob. Yutzy is young, but he’s a minority who’s proved he can read a TelePrompTer, so a long career is assured.

10. Sara Walsh Where do we begin with Channel 2’s “golden girl”? She’s got a great dentist, that’s for sure. When Walsh first hit the Nashville sports scene in 2003, it was clear that she was an ex-jock gal searching for the proper makeover. She’s succeeded a bit at the latter. Now if she would only stop hollering at us from the studio. Can you say “EARNEST”?? One gets the feeling that Walsh was probably making home video audition tapes from the age of 9, plotting and planning her meteoric sports TV career, which maybe will morph someday into taking over from Mary Hart on "Entertainment Tonight." Walsh’s overenthusiastic approach is simply annoying, and you wish someone would shake her and say, “It’s okay, Sara, you ARE lovable and capable.” But she’s a female. And she’s blonde. So the sky’s the limit. That’s the way it works in modern-day TV culture. Walsh works for the local ABC affiliate, and she's probably champing at the bit to grab that sideline reporter job on "Monday Night Football."

11. Amy Fadool In FOX sports reporter Amy Fadool’s first week on the air, she referred to Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch as Kyle Vander Bosch. In her second week, Fadool referred to tight end Bo Scaife as Ben Scaife. In the same broadcast, she referred to Indianapolis Colts defensive back Bob SAN-ders as Bob SAWN-ders. Either the cue-card guy got things wrong, or Fadool can’t read. Or she doesn't know a Titan from a titmouse. Needless to say, she appears clueless about sports. And since when did FOX become a place for on-the-job training for clueless wannabe female sports reporters? There must be 500 already employed male and female sports reporters nationwide in both radio and TV who’d have liked that job—and really know their sports—not to mention tons of better-qualified recent college grads. But they’re probably not blonde. Or “perky.” Don’t get me wrong: women have the rights to these jobs equal to men. Just as long as they know their stuff. The problem is that men, because they follow sports religiously, actually know sports better. Almost always. They actually know who Kyle Vanden Bosch is. Unfortunately, TV’s a visual medium, and station execs are always shoving females down our throats. Ever seen Andrea Brody on George Michael’s syndicated NBC show “Sports Machine” on Sunday nights? She’s clearly not a sports person, yet she gets a nice TV salary and a podium. To her, it’s a broadcasting job, and passion about the topic is irrelevant. Anyway, Fadool looks like the same ilk. Maybe when Lara Spencer steps down from “The Insider,” Fadool can make her move.

The Ex-Jock Factor

Two prominent ex-Titans are currently plying their trade in Nashville television. Without any broadcasting background, without any demonstrated skills as writers or announcers, they have been assigned some prime-time gigs during football season. This is the kind of thing that drives college grads with broadcasting degrees insane. They can’t get jobs, while ex-jocks who already made $40 million playing football get prominent on-air slots. Alas, that’s the way it goes. On the professional level, I find both of these guys close to embarrassing.

1. Neil O’Donnell O’Donnell’s been adopted by Hope Hines and the Channel 5 family, who figured he must need a paycheck after his long NFL career. (Huh?) O’Donnell is from New Jersey, and if Northerners think Southerners talk funny, they should get a load of O’Donnell, who sounds like a longshoreman out of On the Waterfront. O’Donnell is currently courageously fumbling his way through Extemporaneous Sports Analysis 101. He’s not really articulate, though he’s able to lamely quote the occasional cliche (which Eddie George has trouble with [see below]). He also has a stiff on-camera presence, with all the personality of Lurch from The Addams Family. They say Neil’s a real nice guy. But so are a lot of people. Let me know when someone hires ex-Titan Kevin Carter. Him I’d watch.

2. Eddie George George is also a really nice guy. He gained over 10,000 yards in his NFL career, and he led the Titans to Super Bowl XXXIV. He does yoga too. I’m all for Eddie. I suppose his added insights on Channel 2 would be valuable—IF YOU COULD UNDERSTAND THEM. George mumbles his way through the broadcast, and it’s additionally painful to listen to him search for the proper words to express what he’s intending to say. He may have played football at a very high level, but he’s not an articulate off-the-cuff spokesperson. If he weren’t an ex-jock, the station manager would be saying to him, “How does a job driving our mobile camera crew truck sound?” George’s presence does a disservice to ex-jocks who might be capable, and it’s a slap in the face to serious sports broadcasting wannabes who know how to analyze a game. Does he get paid for this? To be fair, Eddie does have some telegeneity, but that’s about it.

Platoon Player

1. Mike Keith Keith isn't really an anchor in the typical way. His primary job is the radio voice of the Titans. But he's been turning up increasingly on the local FOX network with special reports, and he hosts the weekly "Titans All Access" show with the team's general manager, Floyd Reese. Keith strikes you as that nice Mr. Average brother-in-law many of us have. You know the type: You don't mind seeing him at family functions and shooting the sports breeze with him for a while, but you probably are perfectly happy not to see him the rest of the year. He's got jockish enthusiasm, and on balance does a pretty decent job setting up videoclips, doing player profiles, and getting some information out of Reese. Keith has a very nice comfortable niche for himself, without the constant anchor exposure.

Titans' Volek Would Help Jets

The New York Jets announced today that they've added Vinny Testaverde to their roster. The veteran QB has been tapped as a potential answer to the Jets' suddenly woeful quarterback situation, the team losing both Chad Pennington and Jay Fiedler to injury in Sunday's 26-20 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. For the time being, third-stringer Brooks Bollinger gets the starting nod for the Jets, with Testaverde on board for security.

Testaverde, almost 42, probably can still play. After logging in 18 seasons with the Bucs, Cleveland/Baltimore, the Jets and the Cowboys, he's sixth on the NFL's all-time list with 44,476 passing yards. He can't move around much, but he's still got an arm and tons of experience. He could help.

But the real solution for the Jets' short- and possibly long-term problems is sitting on a bench with the Tennessee Titans. His name is Billy Volek, and he's probably the most underrated QB in the league. Volek (left) has spent the bulk of his career (he's now in his sixth season) holding a clipboard while watching Steve McNair take most of the snaps. Yet Volek shines when he gets a chance to play. Last season, with McNair nursing painful injuries, Volek appeared in 10 games, starting 8. The stats are impressive. He completed 218 of 357 attempts (61.1%) for 2,486 yards, with 18 TDs and 10 interceptions. His QB rating was 87.1.

McNair is as healthy now as he's been in years, and Volek continues to wither, itching for a shot at a first-string job. The Titans' former offensive coordinator, Mike Heimerdinger, now holds the same job with the Jets. He knows Volek better than anyone. It's a natural fit.

Let's be honest here. The injury to Pennington looks really bad. He may never play again. If Fiedler recovers, okay, but does anyone really think he's a top-echelon NFL QB? The Jets don't just have to look for help for this season--they need to look down the road for permanent QB relief. Volek is young, has some experience, and he's got a major-league arm. He played his college ball at Fresno State, and was the QB there just before David Carr came on the scene. Volek is unheralded, and virtually unknown, but his pedigree is serious, and he put up excellent numbers last year. Plus, whatever Heimerdinger is doing in New York, Volek can probably pick it up as well as anyone else. Maybe even better.

Acquiring Volek would probably cost the Jets a high draft pick. Maybe a couple of high draft picks. It might be worth paying the price. The team had high hopes going into this season, with every intention of building on last year's promising playoff appearance. Things look bleak now, with the team off to a 1-2 start and facing an upcoming road game against the Baltimore Ravens and their punishing defense.

The Jets have scored but 44 points in three games. Time to take emergency action. Billy Volek might be just what the doctor ordered.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Honesty Hits a New Low: The Strange Revelations of Laveranues Coles

In an Associated Press story today, New York Jets wide receiver Laveranues Coles revealed that he was sexually abused from the ages of 10-13. That's too bad. It's an awful thing that no one should ever have to go through. Sexual abuse has far-ranging emotional consequences for all concerned, and the immediate intervention of mental health professionals is called for once the abuse is recognized.

But what I'm trying to figure out is....why is Laveranues Coles making his childhood troubles public?

The perp in question is Coles' ex-stepfather, now divorced from the football player's mother. The AP story goes on to say that "Coles' mother, Sirretta, divorced her husband when the abuse was first revealed and sought counseling for the youngster. Coles realizes that coming out with this now publicly will reopen old wounds for the family." Mrs. Coles' ex-husband, "whose name the receiver didn't want to reveal, was sentenced to nine years in a Florida prison in 1992 after pleading guilty to the infractions. He served 3 1/2 years, but was later convicted of another crime and has been in prison since 2001."

Well, if this happened years ago, and Coles, 27, received counseling, and his mother divorced the pathetic guy (who is now in jail), then, again I ask you, WHY is Coles going public? There are more than 1,500 players on NFL rosters. I'm sure many of them have some sad life stories, or unbelievable challenges they've had to overcome. Welcome to the fraternity of man. That doesn't mean we have to call a press conference. "Reopen old wounds," Laveranues? Yeah-duhhhhhhhh!

There's no dearth of sympathy for someone like Coles. If he is continuing to have emotional problems stemming from his unfortunate experiences, then he is urged to seek (or continue to seek) help. If he feels an intra-family intervention is needed, then I am sure that his therapist will be happy to arrange one. No doubt there are support groups available for him, and if he wants to go the extra mile in this situation, he could probably make a nice donation to pertinent organizations that can help him and others like him who have suffered psychic pain and confusion. Here's the advice we all drew from the film Good Will Hunting: "It's not your fault."

Perhaps if this were a newly recognized event in Coles' life, with his distressed emotional state affecting his work and causing him to take a hiatus from the NFL, then the announcement might make some sense. Otherwise, to me, it just looks like another case of sports egomania run wild.

Again, I can't stress enough how serious the issue of sexual abuse is. There isn't a right-thinking person in the world who wouldn't hope and pray for Coles' coming to terms and coming to grips with his past. Whatever effects the abuse had on him, it hasn't prevented him from achieving a lot as a pro athlete. He has that to build on, and he has access to first-rate care.

So please, Laveranues, get the help you need. Turn inward to your family, and responsibly deal with these issues with professional assistance. Have courage to face the truth, and we have no doubt you'll come out stronger on the other end.

But in the future: Don't call a press conference. It's tacky, self-centered and wholly unnecessary.

Just think, Coles could've spent that time volunteering at a home for youngsters with emotional difficulties. Instead, he's talking to the press about something that happened more than 15 years ago, and for which his mother arranged counseling at the time. Plus, the criminal element in question--a former relative, no less--is behind bars.

Sorry. I just don't get it.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Baseball Heads Toward Awesome Finish

With only two weeks left in the baseball season, this is shaping up as one of the most interesting campaigns in many a year. Let's look at the leagues:

What looked early on like easy pickings for teams like the White Sox, Red Sox, and Angels, has suddenly become an anything-can-happen proposition. This is due to the incredible tenacity of teams like the Yankees, A's, and most notably, the Cleveland Indians. As of this writing, the Indians are only 4 1/2 games behind the AL Central-leading White Sox. The Tribe has made up five games on the Chisox in the past 10 days, having won 9 out of their last 10 games. The Indians also have the lead in the AL Wild Card standings, yet their torrid pace doesn't guarantee anything because the Yankees are nipping furiously at the heels of the Red Sox, having themselves won 7 out of 10. The Angels looked good early, but don't look good late, and the A's are in a virtual tie wth the Halos, only 1/2 game back. At the moment, it looks like the Red Sox, White Sox and Angels as division winners, with the Indians in the Wild Card; yet it would only take a few minor surges and a few minor failings for the final standings to read Yankees, Indians and A's, with maybe the White Sox in the Wild Card slot. Pay attention. This could be a ton of fun.

About the Indians: I'll leave the heavy research to the wonks at Elias Sports Bureau, but I don't ever recall seeing a team in which players at every starting position, plus the DH, have double digits in home runs. Maybe it's happened before, but it's got to be rare. And who the heck ARE these guys? With their positions and accompanying current HR total, they are, from A-Z:

Ronnie Belliard, 2B, 14
Casey Blake, RF, 20
Aaron Boone, 3B, 14
Ben Broussard, 1B, 18
Coco Crisp, LF, 13
Travis Hafner, DH, 25
Victor Martinez, C, 19
Jhonny Peralta, SS, 21
Grady Sizemore, CF, 19

Boone we know. Maybe Belliard. The others are just vague names to casual fans outside of Cleveland. And Coco Crisp, by the way, has to be the best name in that sports town since Charlie Spikes was around for the Tribe in the '70s.

Pop Quiz: Who are Scott Elarton, Cliff Lee, Jake Westbrook and C.C. Sabathia?

Answer: No, they're not the singers in a boy band. They're the starting pitching rotation for the Cleveland Indians. These four guys have combined for a 54-35 W-L record as of this writing. Who knew? Lee is 16-4, and the others are all at double digits in victories. The Indians' best-known hurler is actually Kevin Millwood, who at 8-11 has struggled to win games, yet is leading all AL starters in ERA at this juncture at 3.02.

The fact is, on paper, no other AL team exhibits such a combination of consistent numbers throughout its lineup and starting rotation. The other teams may have big stars (Ortiz, Ramirez, ARod, Jeter, Guerrero, etc.), but the Indians look balanced--and hungry.

There's more clarity here. The Cardinals and Braves are divisional locks, and one presumes that the Padres will muddle through to the NL West title despite their current, incredibly mediocre 72-74 W-L record. Everyone else in that division is bad, and the Padres hold a 5 1/2 game lead.

Yet there's excitement aplenty in the Wild Card race, where four teams--Astros, Phillies, Marlins and Nationals--are separated by a mere 2 1/2 games. None of these teams is really stepping up the pace, and the funny thing is that the Nationals, a scrappy bunch that's been riddled with injuries and looked to be an absolute mediocrity to begin with back in April, just won't go away, even despite faltering badly since the All-Star break. They won their fourth straight today against the Padres, with late-blooming starter John Patterson pitching a gem. The numbers game doesn't favor the Nats, but if they keep winning, who knows?


Last year, the Red Sox, Cardinals and Angels all made the playoffs, with, of course, the Sox and Cards meeting in a historic World Series. In the off-season, a strange little episode of free-agency flip-flops saw these three teams mix and match their shortstops. David Eckstein (above, left), a popular Angel who won a World Series in 2002, moved to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals' shortstop, Edgar Renteria (above, center), moved out to Boston. Then Orlando Cabrera (above, right), flush from the Sox' 2004 World Series success, left Boston and moved to California to plug the gap left by Eckstein's departure to St. Louis. All three teams are again headed for post-season play, most likely. So who's the winner in the shortstop derby? It looks like a virtual wash here, with all three guys putting up the kind of offensive numbers we'd expect and generally playing solid defense. (Renteria's errors are surprisingly up this year. No one's quite sure why.) The nod would have to go to Eckstein, however; he's been a galvanizing force of late for the Redbirds, particularly since they've had to deal with a rash of injuries, especially to fellow infielders Mark Grudzielanek and Scott Rolen. Eckstein is a persistently combative ballplayer. At 5'7" 165 lbs., he doesn't look like much physically, but he's a classic case of the fight in the dog. Here are the comparative current batting statistics:

Eckstein G-144 AB-574 R-80 H-165 2B-23 3B-7 HR-7 RBI-54 AVG.-.287
Renteria G-138 AB-564 R-88 H-156 2B-32 3B-3 HR-7 RBI-61 AVG.-.277
Cabrera G-125 AB-481 R-56 H-123 2B-25 3B-2 HR-7 RBI-48 AVG.-.256

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Golf Goes to War

Sports books hit the marketplace with regularity. I’ve had the pleasure of reading and reviewing quite a few during my writing career. Even in the midst of our mass-media-ized, fast-paced, Internet-crazed world, books still hold their charm, offering the reader an intimate one-on-one encounter with, in the best cases, a good writer who’s got something singular to say. We’ll be taking a look at new books from time to time at SMA. Here’s our first review:

Author: John Strege
Title: When War Played Through: Golf During World War II
Publisher: Gotham Books
Price: $26
ISBN: 1-592-40154-6

World War II was a calamitous event that dramatically changed everything—even the game of golf. John Strege’s When War Played Through: Golf During World War II profiles golf’s impact on the war effort and effectively catalogs the challenges the sport faced in maintaining its public image during difficult times.

Unlike major league baseball, which continued throughout the war at the insistence of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, golf in the U.S. took a hiatus from 1942-45, its officials “stepping away from their elitist traditions on behalf of the greater good. It was a defining moment for golf and for those governing it, who acknowledged without reluctance--some, perhaps for the first time--that as Americans they were all in this together.“

Instead, through the efforts of the game’s greats (e.g., Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson) and entertainers like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, golf became a key source of fundraising and morale-boosting, and even a form of occupational therapy for wounded GIs (which helped spur the sport’s postwar boom as a more plebeian pursuit). As Strege tells it, Jones and Hogan took more active roles as soldiers in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Snead, while enlisted, mostly spent his time in the service teaching soldiers how to play the game--and filling out foursomes with officers honored to have his company. Nelson, 4-F due to a rare but non-life-threatening blood disorder, had the distinction (and good fortune) of spending his war years playing exhibition matches for war bonds.

Strege ranges widely over people, places (both home and abroad), and episodes great and small, recounting rubber shortages that affected the supply of golf balls; the untoward use of prestigious venues like Augusta National for military training and also for Victory gardens and grazing pasture; and even the strange occurrence of Allied POWs building a makeshift golf course at Stalag Luft III, site of events that inspired the film The Great Escape. (Yes, the enterprising, boredom-challenged prisoners had to fashion their own clubs and balls, and Strege even tells us how they did it.)

The author, a frequent contributor to Sports Illustrated, Golf, and Golf World (and also the author of the best-seller Tiger), weaves in brief tales concerning golf aficionado General Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose well-known affection for the game found more prominent exposure after he became U.S. president in 1953. Strege also proffers a little history about the Bush clan in the person of Prescott Bush, the current president’s grandfather, who was an avid, 2-handicap golfer, and who served during the war as national campaign chairman of the USO and also chair of the National War Fund, which oversaw some 600 war relief groups. (Another tidbit: golf’s Walker Cup is named for the current president’s maternal great-grandfather.)

More poignantly, Strege relates the stories of promising young golfers (e.g., Georgetown University’s John Burke) who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. He further clarifies the long-held but incorrect notion that Pearl Harbor’s military and naval chiefs, Lt. General Walter C. Short and Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, were on a fairway when the Japanese planes began their attack. They weren’t. However, they were getting ready to play a scheduled round, and if the attack had come an hour later, a bomb on the 5th Hole green might’ve killed them both.

Concluding chapters offer an overview of the game’s postwar “return to normalcy,” highlighted by the irrepressible Nelson’s unprecedented 11 consecutive PGA victories and the surprise 1946 Masters victory of lesser-known golfer Herman Keiser, who had served as a sailor on the USS Cincinnati .

Strege is a strong, stylish writer, and he deftly manages to develop what, at first glance, might seem to be a rather arcane subject. He puts just enough back-spin on the history to make the golf lore come alive. His book is recommended highly for those golf fans whose broader interests lie beyond the 19th hole.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Titans Lay Egg in Season Debut, but They're Not Alone

SPORTS MEDIA AMERICA's preseason NFL predictions [click here] included high hopes for the Tennessee Titans. Everyone says they're rebuilding, but we thought we'd put some faith in the things that were already good about the team, and then presume that Coach Jeff Fisher (pictured above) could work some magic with the youngsters. Thankfully, there are 15 games left, and the Titans still have time to get on track. But based on the season opener against Pittsburgh, there's a ton of work to be done.

The Titans looked good early. Then an unlikely, momentum-changing interception by the Steelers turned the whole game around, and the Titans were swept aside like the Gulf Coast in the path of Hurricane Katrina. Even the final score, 34-7, didn't indicate how bad the Titans looked. The offensive line, presumably a strength, was often overwhelmed by the muscular Pittsburgh defense. The Titans' own D looked far worse than even dedicated, positive-thinking fans might've thought imaginable.

The Titans turned the ball over four times, and Steeler QB Ben Roethlisberger took advantage, looking in total command, as the Steelers scored on their first six possessions. Roethlisberger used fleet and shifty WR Antwaan Randle El to good effect, then handed the ball off to a relative newcomer, Willie Parker, a second-year RB who simply stomped over and through the youthful and confused Titans for 161 yards. Making matters worse, Titans All-Pro LB Keith Bulluck left the game with a minor injury.

For a young team like the Titans, you couldn't imagine a more gut-wrenching reality check. Those of us who still believe in the team's near future count the positives: Steve McNair looked good--and healthy--at QB; Chris Brown and Travis Henry WILL provide consistent running, especially once OL Brad Hopkins returns to the team; the rookie wide receivers have promise, and will step up to assist veterans Drew Bennett and Tyrone Calico. On defense, there remains a ton of promise on the defensive line, and we here at SMA believe that youngsters like Antwan Odom, Randy Stark, Kyle Vanden Bosch, and "veteran" Albert Haynesworth will start to pressure opposing quarterbacks. When they do, the restructured secondary might have a chance to find itself.

So the Titans have their work cut out for them. Fact is, they're not alone. A lot of playoff teams from last year took a Week 1 hit. The Vikings lost to the Bucs, Seattle lost to Jacksonville, the Chargers were defeated by the Cowboys, St. Louis lost to the supposedly lowly 49ers, the Jets lost to Kansas City, and the Packers lost to Detroit. Other teams with legit playoff aspirations also bit the dust Sunday, including Denver, Baltimore and Carolina. Yet another 2004 playoff team will lose on Monday night, as the Philadelphia Eagles battle the Atlanta Falcons.

So it's early yet--for everyone. This season promises surprises, and maybe a major changing of the guard. We still think the Titans can step up and ambush their competition.

Call it a faith-based initiative.

[P.S.: In the Addition by Subtraction Dept., we noted with a little glee that the Chicago Bears' attempted game-winning fourth-quarter drive Sunday against the Redskins was thwarted, in part, when former Titan OL Fred Miller was called for a motion penalty. "False-Start Freddie" killed many a drive doing that for Tennessee, and SMA was hugely relieved when he left for Chicago during the off-season. Miller is talented, and he's also been around a good long while. But it's a mystery why someone that experienced constantly makes the same mistake over and over. The Bears better get used to it.]

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

NFL 2005

Preseason NFL football predictions abound. They're fun to indulge in, interesting to read--and quite often wrong. Who knew last year that the San Diego Chargers would do so well? Or that the Carolina Panthers would start out 1-7 and miss the playoffs? Or that the Jacksonville Jaguars would suddenly emerge as a force, while the division-rival Tennessee Titans would fall to 5-11? Rosters can change suddenly these days, through free agency, trades, injury, retirements and the draft, and the hopes of summer camp can look pretty dismal by the time December rolls around. But, like everybody else, SPORTS MEDIA AMERICA feels its obligation to get on record about the upcoming season.

Following is the predicted order of finish for NFL teams, with projected won-loss records and an accompanying thumbnail sizeup. Playoff predictions must inevitably be included, and they are, but don't quote me in Vegas. You'll probably lose your shirt.

AFC East

1. New England Patriots (11-5)--For the first time in a while, the Patriots will be challenged. They've lost some key personnel from last year's 14-2 Super Bowl winners, some through unforeseen occurrence. Still, they've got Belichick and Brady and Corey Dillon, and they ought to be able to hold off the divisional wannabes.

2. New York Jets (10-6)--This team still has a few question marks, but if QB Chad Pennington stays healthy, they've got a chance to achieve at a high level. They were 10-6 last year, and showed moxie in the playoffs. Laveranues Coles rejoins the team, which is a good thing. (I think.) RB Curtis Martin needs to squeeze out yet another muscular season on the ground, but he's not getting any younger.

3. Buffalo Bills (9-7)--It's really tempting to predict that the Bills might even win their division. They've got an aggressive defense, young gifted receivers, and a supposed future superstar in RB Willis McGahee. It could happen. But their QB, J. P. Losman, remains an untested commodity. People want to believe he'll do for the Bills what Ben Roethlisberger did for the Steelers last year. That's a lot to believe. And I'm still not sold that McGahee is durable and great. Letting Travis Henry get away could come up and bite the Bills in the behind. The Bills were 9-7 last year. If they get continuity at the QB position, we could see a serious spike in the record. As it is, 9-7 still looks pretty good for a team with a virtual rookie behind center.

4. Miami Dolphins (6-10)--It's probably going to be brutal in south Florida this year. Head coach Nick Saban takes over a 4-12 train-wreck of a team, which has retreads at the QB position, problems along the offensive line, and question marks at receiver. Maybe QB Gus Frerotte (remember him??) will just hand the ball off all season to rookie Ronnie Brown and prodigal pothead Ricky Williams. The defense still has good personnel, and maybe the Dolphins surprise. Realistically, gaining two victories over last year seems hopeful.

AFC North

1. Baltimore Ravens (12-4)--This team has QB questions as well. Kyle Boller still has much to prove. But his receiving corps has improved with the addition of Derrick Mason, and when Jamal Lewis is your running back, there is potential to win every game. The defense looks as good as ever, and Brian Billick remains a top-echelon NFL coach. Last year's 9-7 finish takes a nice leap.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)--When you go 15-1, as the Steelers did last year, there's nowhere to go but down. Will Roethlisberger repeat last year's unprecedented rookie season? Seems unlikely. Furthermore, injuries at running back plague the team. Still a lot of good players here on defense, though.

3. Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)--Everyone's looking for this team to start competing for a playoff spot. They've got good young talent on offense. Not so sure about the D. If they were anyone else, I'd say last year's 8-8 finish gets boosted. They're the Bengals, though, and history has not been kind. Going above .500 seems a reasonable expectation.

4. Cleveland Browns (3-13)--Former Patriots defensive guru Romeo Crennel takes over this chronically underachieving bunch. They were 4-12 last year, and things could get worse before they get better. Trent Dilfer at QB? Yikes. Frankly, I have no idea who the key players are on this team. Pothead RB William Green? Ummmm...okay. Rookie WR Braylon Edwards? Yeah, he has potential. The Browns will be lucky to win a single game in their division. Expect the rest of the league to feast as well.

AFC South

1. Indianapolis Colts (11-5)--Peyton Manning notwithstanding, I see the Colts dropping one game off last's year's 12-4 finish. The offense should remain high-powered, but the defense still warrants improvement, and the divisional competition is getting stiffer.

2. Tennessee Titans (10-6)--Experts will scoff, but the Titans are going to surprise. They've undergone massive personnel change and have lost some All-Pro players like Samari Rolle, Derrick Mason, and Kevin Carter. However, they've got a huge supply of hungry young talent on the defensive line and decent linebackers headed up by the irrepressible Keith Bulluck. QB Steve McNair is healthy, Chris Brown and Travis Henry are quality runners, the OL is veteran, and there's a trio of good-looking rookie WRs--Courtney Roby, Brandon Jones and Roydell Williams--that could get into the offensive mix sooner than later. There are patched-up holes in the secondary--and #1 draft pick CB Pacman Jones could be a head case--but if head coach Jeff Fisher gets the team playing in their usual aggressive style, the Titans will spike well above last year's 5-11 finish.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (9-7)--They surprised last year, finishing 9-7 and almost snagging a playoff spot. The defense is rugged all right, but this team scored exactly half the number of points last season (261) as the Colts (522). Byron Leftwich is a gifted young QB, and Fred Taylor, when healthy, is a great runner. They've bulked up the receiving corps through trades and the draft, but it says here that Leftwich needs another year to get in total synch. Another 9-7 record will disappoint the locals, but it's still hard to know if last year wasn't a little flukish.

4. Houston Texans (6-10)--This could be the end of Dom Capers as head coach. The Texans made it to 7-9 last year, a high watermark for the expansion club. Anything below that will be frowned upon by fans. David Carr is a talented QB who needs to prove even more, and he has the quality receivers to do so. But questions about the offensive line still linger and the defense is only average. There's no reason to think that radical progress is just ahead, plus the division will be as tough as ever. Goodbye, Dom, thanks for getting us launched.

AFC West

1. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)--This is a very tough division to predict. There are any number of speculative scenarios involving potential and the expectations based on last year's records. Denver promises to fall off some, Oakland won't be quite ready to jump hugely forward, and no one knows how consistently good the Chargers really are. That leaves the Chiefs, who disappointed mightily with last year's 7-9 finish. Coach Dick Vermeil went out and got some defensive help, and his team still has explosive offensive weapons (the team scored 483 points last year, second only to Indianapolis league-wide). However, QB Trent Green has to stay healthy. Assuming he does, this team heads to the playoffs.

2. San Diego Chargers (10-6)--Can they go 12-4 again? Only time will tell. They scored a lot of points last season with QB Drew Brees and all-world RB LaDainian Tomlinson. The defense was generally consistent, but occasionally porous. Maybe it's the Marty Schottenheimer Factor at work, but it says here that since last year was an apparent case of overachievement, the team loses some steam. The Chargers still look playoff-bound, though.

3. Denver Broncos (8-8)--Anyone else here think Jake the Snake is a fake? He led the team to a 10-6 record, but something about QB Jake Plummer does not inspire confidence. Until he puts up a dominant season of football, the jury is out on him. He's got good receivers (Rod Smith, Ashley Lelie), and everyone's talking about how former Giant backfield bust Ron Dayne has been tearing up the pre-season (all 253 pounds of him). The defense last year was average-to-good, but no serious additions have been made. With other teams improving, I think the Broncos take a hit in the W-L column.

4. Oakland Raiders (7-9)--They were 5-11 last year, mainly because the defense gave up 442 points, worst in the league with the exception of the crosstown San Francisco 49ers. Pothead WR Randy Moss--do we see a trend here?--comes aboard to assist QB Kerry Collins, which makes Jerry Porter an even better receiver on the other side. Plus, former Jet LaMont Jordan joins the backfield, and he could break out in a big way. Coach Norv Turner knows offense, and the Raiders should score plenty. Once again the team's fate is in the hands of the D. They have some young talent, though promising LB Napoleon Harris got away to the Vikings. Warren Sapp anchors the defensive line, and it's still unknown if that's a good thing or a bad thing. A two-game improvement is possible, maybe more if the offense takes it to a new level. They get a chance to show the nation what they've got on opening night, Sept. 8, against the world champion Patriots.

AFC Playoffs

Wild-Card Round:

Chiefs over Titans

Patriots over Chargers

Divisional Round

Ravens over Chiefs

Colts over Patriots

AFC Championship

Ravens over Colts

NFC East

1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)--They were 13-3 last year and made it to the Super Bowl. But every other team in their division was 6-10, and the Eagles swept all six of their intradivisional games. Their RB situation still looks suspicious to me, and after Terrell Owens, the receivers are only so-so. The great Jim Johnson-coordinated defense will have to perform again at a high level, and it says here that that's too much to ask. Philly drops a couple off last year's victory totals.

2. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)--The rest of this division is mostly a mystery, but Coach Bill Parcells has been shaking things up in Dallas, bringing in a few new faces and drafting well. Drew Bledsoe is the new QB, and that could mean anything from total washout to consistent, occasionally spectacular play. He's still got a strong arm, and RB Julius Jones has potential star power. Rookie Demarcus Ware looks like the second coming of Lawrence Taylor. Cowboys on the rise.

3. New York Giants (7-9)--A one-game improvement, as Eli Manning still tries to figure out NFL defenses. Tiki Barber is good. So is Jeremy Shockey. Otherwise, the Giants look marginal to me.

4. Washington Redskins (6-10)--Repeating last year's finish might be giving the Redskins too much credit. Their QB situation is tenuous at best. If Patrick Ramsey sputters, where does Joe Gibbs turn? To Mark Brunell, who was simply awful last year? Or to rookie Jason Campbell? The receivers are newcomers with experience by and large, but who says Santana Moss and David Patten are the second coming of Art Monk and Charley Taylor? There's some talent on the offensive line, and Clinton Portis is a versatile, productive RB, but you can't keep pounding the guy into the line as if he's John Riggins. That's what'll happen if the passing attack falters. Leaguewide, only the Chicago Bears (231) scored fewer points than the Redskins' 240 last season. Yet only four other teams, all playoff-bound, allowed fewer points than the Redskins' defense, and coordinator Gregg Williams' squad was solely responsible for keeping the 'Skins in their games. But DB Fred Smoot and LB Antonio Pierce are gone now, and LB LaVar Arrington is trying to rebound from injury. The defensive line plays aggressively but is not an elite unit. There are holes to fill here on both sides of the ball, and we still don't know if Joe Gibbs will ever return to form as the Hall of Fame coach he surely once was.

NFC North

1. Minnesota Vikings (10-6)--I'm not sold on Mike Tice as a head coach yet, and this division looks like a prognosticator's nightmare. But QB Daunte Culpepper is so gifted that even the loss of Randy Moss can be overcome. Nate Burleson is a talented WR, and rookie Troy Williamson has the speed to make fans forget Moss. The committee of RBs is a good, consistent bunch. On defense, Napoleon Harris joins the team at linebacker, and other improvements have been made, especially in the secondary. A team on the move, so long as their coach doesn't play the role of meathead.

2. Green Bay Packers (8-8)--This might be a gift pick, but the rest of the division is so conveniently unpredictable that history has to count for something. Bret Favre is still Bret Favre, and the Pack should be able to generate enough offense to break even. The D looks bad, though, injury-depleted and not that good to begin with, yielding 380 points last season. With bad luck, the Packers could fall a few more notches.

3. Detroit Lions (8-8)--Coach Steve Mariucci has a chance to make serious progress with a team that went 6-10 last season. He's gonna bite his lip and go with Joey Harrington as his QB, with backup Jeff Garcia now out of commission due to injury. A world of potential at WR and a decent running attack give the Lions a chance to score more than their lackluster 296 points of 2004. It's all up to Harrington, though. The defense was also found wanting last year, with no obvious big-time additions. All things considered, the Lions have a legit chance to overachieve.

4. Chicago Bears (7-9)--I actually heard that some sports wag designated the Bears to win their division. Maybe that was before QB Rex Grossman went out for the year with an injury. Now the job falls to rookie Kyle Orton. He looked like he had a precocious wherewithal in the preseason, but that hardly means a thing. Just a ray of hope. Will rookie RB Cedric Benson get into the offensive mix? Eventually, yes, but the Bears' track record with running backs in the recent era has been...well... Anybody remember Raymont Harris? How about Ki-Jana Carter? The Bears acquired Muhsin Muhammad in the offseason to catch passes. He's good, but can Orton find him? The worst offense from 2004 now operates with a rookie QB. That may say it all. The defense is aggressive and has some talent, led by Brian Urlacher. The Bears will be fun to watch, but even a two-game improvement over last year's 5-11 could be iffy.

NFC South

1. Carolina Panthers (12-4)--After a 1-7 start last year, the Panthers got untracked and went 6-2 the rest of the way. They missed the playoffs, but did enough to dispel notions that their fabulous 2003 season was a mirage. A tough, young defense led by multi-purpose DL Julius Peppers mixes with a diverse offense led by cagey QB Jake Delhomme (the REAL Jake the Snake). John Fox is a good head coach, too. Chance to win it all.

2. Atlanta Falcons (9-7)--Last year's 11-5 record was achieved putting up mediocre offensive and defensive numbers. Michael Vick hasn't learned to operate seamlessly from the pocket yet, and until he does, the Falcons will remain in third gear. That's better than second gear, all right, but it's not fast enough to compete with the league's very best. Nevertheless, this is a good, balanced team, with a promising young head coach in Jim Mora, Jr. Carolina is still the better team, and the Falcons will struggle to make the playoffs.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)--I happen to be one of the relatively few people in the football biz who likes QB Brian Griese a lot. He's got a strong arm and a lot of poise. Whether he can lead this team to the playoffs is another matter, but the opportunity is there. Rookie RB Carnell Williams came into camp early and got started learning head coach Jon Gruden's system, and the kid's got talent. The defense here also has a lot of good, experienced players. Last year's 5-11 finish could have easily been a .500 record with a little luck. The luck should change this year. Possible wild-card berth.

4. New Orleans (4-12)--What more can be said about this jinxed organization? Everyone has always wanted to see the Saints do well. They start to achieve, then settle back into mediocrity (like years back when Jim Mora, Sr., coached 'em). They're poised to get a shot at a playoff berth under current coach Jim Haslett, then lose a bunch of games in a row at season's end. Now they have no city to call home. There are star-caliber players on the roster, like courageous QB Aaron Brooks, playmaking WR Joe Horn and durable RB Deuce McAllister. They ought to be improving over last year's 8-8 record. Yet they'll never play a game on their familiar home turf. (Can you say "San Antonio Saints"?) If Haslett equals the 2004 victory total, he's a lock for Coach of the Year.

NFC West

1. St. Louis Rams (10-6)--Another crazy-quilt division. The Rams might be the best of the bunch. Or maybe third-best. QB Marc Bulger has a major-league arm, and young RB Steven Jackson is ready to assert himself as a major force. Like every team in this division, the defense is suspect. Maybe the Rams win it by default. Even 10 wins could be a prayer.

2. Seattle Seahawks (9-7)--An exciting team with a hex on it. QB Matt Hasselback looks like the new Brett Favre. RB Shaun Alexander piles up yardage like nobody's business. Then receivers drop critical third-down receptions, and a porous defense takes the field. Mediocrity results, and coach Mike Holmgren can be seen tearing his hair out (what he's got left of it, anyway). The Seahawks are ready to repeat last year's 9-7 finish, but it won't get 'em a division title this time. Wild-card possibility, but that's it.

3. Arizona Cardinals (8-8)--Another team that looks on the verge of success. Hard to be sure, since they finished 6-10 last year. Kurt Warner steps in as QB, in what will be his last-ditch effort to prove that he's still got All-Pro game. Rookie RB J. J. Arrington is being touted highly. Still a lot of question marks with Coach Dennis Green's defense, but improvement should come, and a definite surprise is possible.

4. San Francisco 49ers (5-11)--When you're coming off a 2-14 season, there's nowhere to go but up. Theoretically, that is. The Niners have a new head coach in Mike Nolan. They're going with Tim Rattay at QB, which doesn't really tell us much. Last year's offense was one of the league's worst, and the defense yielded 452 points, the absolute worst anywhere. Even winning five games might be a stretch, but unlike the Saints, the Niners at least get to play eight games before a friendly crowd.

NFC Playoffs

Wild-Card Round

Falcons over Rams

Vikings over Cowboys

Divisional Round

Panthers over Falcons

Vikings over Eagles

NFC Championship

Panthers over Vikings

Super Bowl

Panthers over Ravens