Thursday, January 26, 2006

Dan Patrick Jello-Wrestles Anna Benson to an Entertaining Draw

"I've got huge breastesses," Anna Benson said proudly, matter-of-factly to ESPN Radio savant Dan Patrick today, in one of sports media's more entertaining recent moments. Dan admitted later to being a little unnerved by the frankly speaking wife of new Baltimore Orioles pitcher Kris Benson, but in fact he handled himself deftly, sidekick Keith Olbermann fortuitously kept his mouth shut, and we learned lots of cool things about this delectably trailer-trashy babe.

Yes, Benson does have large breasts. She also hates Michael Moore, thinks the folks at PETA are full of crap, supports America's fight against terrorism, loves to play Texas Hold 'Em, works sincerely for various charities, has three kids, and, after being rescued by her husband from a career as a stripper, is now poised to maybe break into hosting a cable TV talk show. She's also been considered for a Wonder Woman movie.

Okay, we're not talking Marie Curie here. But for fearlessness in the face of a savage media, Anna's got game. To the male world's detriment, she has, so far, turned down a nude Playboy shoot, and there's been some speculation that such a prospect was at least in part responsible for the New York Mets trading her husband to the Orioles. (Oh, those bluenose Mets!)

Benson is a shameless self-promoter, and usually people like that are annoying as hell. She once told Howard Stern that if she ever caught hubby cheating on her, she'd turn around and "do" the entire Mets team. Hyperbole becomes you, Anna. (The ticket line forms to the right. In Baltimore now, I guess.)

The Bensons are a collective piece of work. Apparently, Kris completes each inning of work by walking off the mound and, for Anna's luxury skybox eyes only, sticks his index finger in his ear. Hmmmm...that's phallic, right?? The duo are also the founders of Benson’s Battalion, a non-profit corporation, formed post-9/11 in October 2001, which is dedicated to "fighting terror and making communities safe by supporting the nation's police, fire and other related public safety groups through funding for equipment, supplies and education." Sounds good to me.

Maybe if Kris Benson was Roger Clemens we'd find Anna's antics untoward. But given that, in a six-year career with Pittsburgh and the Mets, Kris is 57-61 with a 4.25 ERA, he can use all the hype his wife can provide. Kris is a mediocre-to-decent starting pitcher, probably a #3 or #4 starter with most teams. Of course, that still makes him a multi-millionaire, and in that regard, the Kris-Anna relationship has to be of mutual benefit. Kris should help the Orioles. Who knows? Maybe he'll have a career year. At any rate, Anna has promised that she and Kris will "christen the parking lot" at Camden Yards. Classy stuff. But hey, wouldn't you if you could?

Anna turns 30 in 2006. She came off on the Patrick show as kind of an airhead, but a refreshingly forthright one. With someone like this, I suppose we cultured types are supposed to scoff, turn our noses in the air, and assume that she gets categorized immediately with the Tonya Hardings of the world. But I don't know. Anna Benson may not be the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but she's got a distinctive color, and maybe Kris is one lucky guy. Now if he can only bring that ERA down a point.

It's no surprise that Anna has a Web site. Here's the link: Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

An NBA Primer for the Disenfranchised Fan

Remember the NBA? That men's professional basketball league that used to be pretty cool before it got boring on the court and its players started running into the stands to hassle fans when they weren't being arraigned on drug or assault or paternity-suit charges? You know, the league that used to have Michael Jordan winning championships and amazing the world with his all-around greatness?

It wasn't that long ago when I used to follow the NBA well enough. But I think Tim Duncan's more recent methodical excellence put me to sleep while he was winning championships for the San Antonio Spurs. The league got a boost the other night when Kobe Bryant poured in 81 points for the Los Angeles Lakers. Unfortunately, a lot of people still despise Bryant, ever since he skated on that sleazy rape accusation. Hence, his feat wasn't that celebrated. But mostly otherwise, if you're anything like me, you probably haven't been following the NBA much the past few years. We're now about halfway through the '05-'06 season. So here, for the uninitiated, or the barely initiated, is a little NBA primer. Some of this might jog your memory, but little of it will amaze you. You might chuckle.

1. There are currently 30 teams in the NBA, 15 each in the Eastern and Western conferences, with five teams in each of 6 divisions (Atlantic, Central and Southeast in the Eastern; Northwest, Pacific and Southwest in the Western).

2. The reigning NBA champions are the San Antonio Spurs, who have won two out of the last three titles, and three of the last seven, with Duncan the playoff MVP in each of those Finals series. (Zzzzzzzzz...)

3. The best team in the league as of this writing is the Detroit Pistons, who are 33-5 (.868). This should not surprise since they won the 2004 NBA title. Two teams are tied for the second-best current record at 31-10 (.756), San Antonio and the Dallas Mavericks. The next best teams are the Phoenix Suns (.650) and the Memphis Grizzlies (.615). (There are no grizzly bears in Memphis so far as anyone knows. This team originally was the Vancouver Grizzlies, but they had to move to Memphis when the local bear population of Vancouver stopped coming to the games. NBA all-time-great Jerry West, who played his entire career with the Los Angeles Lakers, is the Grizzlies' general manager. They used to suck big-time but have been slowly improving under his leadership.)

4. Every other team in the NBA has a mediocre record, and, except for a few scattered stars, is hardly worth talking about.

5. The stars worth talking about are Bryant, Allen Iverson (Philadelphia 76ers), Carmelo Anthony (Denver Nuggets), Kevin Garnett (Minnesota Timberwolves), LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers, pictured left) and Tracy McGrady (Houston Rockets). (There are no rockets in Houston, but NASA's Mission Control was located there during the space race. Remember the space race? No?? It's just as well.) Also, Gilbert Arenas (Washington Wizards) is an almost-star. (Quick, where did Arenas go to college? The answer is Arizona; he was drafted in the second round in 2001 by the Golden State Warriors.) Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat is getting to be pretty good also. (And yes, his name is pronounced "Dwayne" even though it's spelled "Dwy-ane," and parental ignorance of phonetics has never inhibited offspring's athletic success.) Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns was last year's NBA MVP. He's pretty good, too...for a white guy. He's especially good for a South African-born white guy. The odds of him ever winning the MVP again are about a million-to-one.

6. Bryant, Garnett, James and McGrady never went to college, and they seem no worse off for not having spent three or four precious years of their lives taking classes in Phys Ed and basket-weaving while trying to win an NCAA championship for a school that would reap millions of dollars from their doing so and give them none of the money.

7. Shaquille O'Neal is a sorta star, but is getting older and no longer on the Lakers. He's now a member of the Miami Heat, where his coach is Pat Riley. Riley once coached the Lakers to league titles in the '80s. Personally, I like O'Neal best on his TV commercials. He seems like a nice guy, even if he is cross-eyed.

8. New Orleans has a team called the Hornets. There are probably a lot of hornets in New Orleans these days, because they probably flocked there after Hurricane Katrina and joined the water-borne-disease brigade. However, because of Katrina, the Hornets (the team) aren't there any longer because there's no place to play. So now they are, pro tem, the Oklahoma City Hornets. We hope there are plenty of hornets in Oklahoma City. Just for fun. Also, the Utah team is called the Jazz, which is weird because it's doubtful there is much jazz in a state run by Mormons. But it's all gonna come full circle when you realize that the Jazz used to be the New Orleans Jazz, 'cause there is/was plenty of jazz in New Orleans. But apparently not enough musicians came to the games, so the team had to skedaddle to...Utah, where they've been pretty successful, even if no one there knows who Miles Davis is. Isn't franchise roulette fun? (See #9.)

9. Charlotte has a team called the Bobcats. Apparently there are bobcats in the North Carolina woods. At least we hope so. Unless you're out there camping. But apparently there used to be plenty of hornets in North Carolina also. That's because the New Orleans Hornets used to be, originally, the Charlotte Hornets. But they left Charlotte because.... I don't know why they left Charlotte. And I really don't care. Why do I guess it had something to do with money? [bobcat |'bäb,kat| noun, a small North American cat species with a barred and spotted coat and a short tail. • Lynx rufus, family Felidae. Compare with LYNX.]

10. Phil Jackson (left) is still the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, even though he left last year because he was fed up with Bryant and O'Neal bickering. Or something like that. Now he's back. Larry Brown is the coach of the New York Knicks, not the Pistons or the 76ers or any other team he's coached in the past. This is his very first stint with the Knicks, and they suck with a 13-26 record. The Lakers are mediocre (22-19), and even the cross-town Clippers have a better record. (You have to think too hard to remember who the rest of the coaches are around the NBA, so we won't bother.)

Bonus Question: Who are Milt Palacio, Mehmet Okur, Lee Nailon, Leandro Barbosa and Tyronn Lue?

Answer: I don't know, and neither do you. They're rumored to be current members of NBA teams. There are a lot of other guys like this in the NBA, but nobody knows who they are. Even their coaches are baffled.

The 2006 NBA All-Star Game will be held at the Toyota Center in Houston on Sunday, Feb. 19. This will give us all a chance to catch up on the league's stars. Or catch up on our sleep. Whichever comes first.

The Super Bowl: A Promising Showdown of Unexpected Combatants

My sister in Maryland—and a lot of other people—simply adores Peyton Manning. So she's miffed that he's not in the Super Bowl. What can we say? The Pittsburgh Steelers took it to Manning's Colts, outmuscled 'em, and then did the same thing to the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. I've been picking against the Steelers all postseason, but they keep showing us something: undeniably superior physicality, a young QB with moxie to spare and playmaking ability, and balance throughout their starting 22. You know you're in trouble when Hines Ward and Antwan Randle El, the Steelers' main receivers, are playing support roles, while Cedric Wilson, an underrated refugee from the 49ers, is coming up big catching TD passes from Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers didn't put up big rushing numbers against the Broncos, but they got enough tough yards out of Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis to complement what they were doing through the air. The Steelers have now won seven straight games, including three straight on the road in the playoffs. It's unlikely as hell, but they did it, and they won each game convincingly. If you look back at their streak, it all makes sense, since they were kicking butt throughout, but bucking the odds through all the plane travel might alone be a sign of their destiny.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Seahawks emerged as the NFC's best, after a season in which they put up the best won-loss record in their conference. Still, they were disparaged, since the level of their competition was called into question by many experts. Carolina, their foe in the NFC Championship Game, looked like a team wilting under the ravages of road travel, not to mention their tough divisional-round game against the Bears, in which they incurred injuries to key players. Carolina also got outmuscled, and Seattle's defensive line looked a lot more fearsome than anyone could have predicted. I hardly knew who Rocky Bernard was before this past Sunday, but he's one tough customer. So is rookie linebacker Lofa Tatupu. With running back Shaun Alexander re-emerging from his concussion against the Redskins in the divisional playoff, the Seahawks were hitting on all cylinders, and QB Matt Hasselbeck seems to grow in leadership with every outing.

So, even though we didn't necessarily expect these two teams to make it to Super Bowl XL, here they are, and this actually might make for a pretty good game. It's too late now to say the Steelers will feel the effects of road travel; hell, they haven't been home for over a month. And we can't accuse the Seahawks of choking, because so far they certainly haven't; they don't look merely lucky, either. And so, as we weigh in with our prediction, we're going to simply look at the personnel, assume everyone's biorhythms are on an even keel, and pick a winner.

ANALYSIS: The Steelers' wide receivers are superior to the Seahawks. All things being equal, I think Ward, Randle El and Wilson have a better chance of piercing the Seattle defense than Seahawks Darrell Jackson, Bobby Engram and Joe Jurevicius have against Troy Polamalu & Co. Alexander might have a decent day running, but as the Steelers shut down the passing game, they'll be able to marshal more resources against the league's MVP, eventually rendering him ineffective when it counts. Both QBs are playing error-free ball, and there's certainly something cuddly and likeable about Hasselbeck. And yet, Roethlisberger looks like Goliath back there; his arm is strong, and he seems to have gained more mobility as the playoffs have progressed. If he's getting production out of his RBs, he knows how to run a low-risk offense; if he has to throw, he has experienced and gifted weapons on his side, who seem to have the speed and elusiveness to outfox the Seahawks' secondary. If the game comes down simply to smash-mouth football, I haven't seen anyone this year do that as well as the Steelers. Plus, they're representing the AFC, clearly the superior conference this season. (The early betting line has the Steelers by 4.)

PREDICTION: Pittsburgh 23, Seattle 17

That said, it'd sure be fun to see the Seahawks rise up and prove me wrong. I'd rather see a surprise result than a boilerplate one.

Cherchez La Femme: A Picture of Kendra Davis

In the whole vast configuration of things, the Antonio Davis incident in Chicago last week seems pretty stupid. What New York Knick Davis did—entering the stands to "protect" his wife—seems kinda stupid. Whatever his wife, Kendra, was doing in the stands—Whooping it up loudly? Mouthing-off to Bulls fans?—seems kinda stupid. And the action taken by Bulls fan Michael Axelrod—threatening a million-dollar lawsuit, then asking for a public apology and Davis' donation of money to his (Axelrod's) favorite charity—also seems stupid. (Axelrod, all of 22, comes off as particularly precocious in his reaction and demands. But should we be surprised? He's the son of David Axelrod, a high-profile and longtime media consultant to Democratic candidates. Axelrod Sr. has strong political connections both locally and nationally.)

I'm very happy to forget that this stupid thing ever happened, which is probably why I wasn't moved to write about it in the first place. But what I didn't see during the media coverage of the flap was a picture of the fair Kendra. We present one now, copped from an old Web site of the Toronto Raptors, for whom Antonio played from '99 to '03. It looks like Kendra was doing a media report of some kind. At least someone was putting her mouth to good use.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

More Complaints about NFL Hiring Practices; Conference Championship Predictions

On the heels of a brace of recent hirings of new NFL head coaches, a Dallas sportswriter was heard to bitch recently about the dearth of African-Americans awarded, or even considered for, the jobs. We've heard this before. We've heard it for years actually. Then we thought the problem got addressed. There's definitely been an increase in the number of black assistant coaches among the ranks. The upshot of that is that there are now more black head coaches. Three of them made it into the playoffs: Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati), Tony Dungy (Indianapolis) and Lovie Smith (Chicago). There's also Dennis Green in Phoenix, Romeo Crennel in Cleveland and Herman Edwards in Kansas City. That means black head coaches represent a little less than 20% of the available positions. That percentage mirrors the black population of the country in general, so I guess you could argue that affirmative action is working. Unless there's a new paradigm, which states that the number of black coaches should reflect a percentage of the number of black players on the field. African-American ex-players have certainly been filling the ranks of TV reporters nicely, and in that regard it's gotten so a "po' white boy" hasn't got a snowball's chance in hell of breaking into the national electronic media, no matter how articulate or telegenic he might be. (Women, of course, have their own niche in sportscasting, and their hires have little to do with race.)

So I dunno. Maybe because blacks play football on a wide scale, perhaps 70% of NFL coaches should be black. Same with all the broadcasters. Maybe eventually we'll get to that. For now, there's still the possibility that the men hired recently for the top jobs were selected because they presented the most convincing arguments for success to their prospective bosses. You've got to believe that if GM Matt Millen of the Lions could have found an African-American coach to turn around the fortunes of that sorry franchise, he certainly would have hired one.

As of this writing, Oakland, Houston and Buffalo have still yet to fill head coaching slots.

It's just a little hard to believe that racism has anything to do with this issue. They used to bitch about there not being enough African-American quarterbacks. Now there are plenty. These things take time. It takes a while for the pool of qualified candidates to swell.

Then there is the delicate issue of results. In the history of the NFL, only one black quarterback (Doug Williams) has led his team to a league championship. No black head coach has ever won a Super Bowl.


Call-in radio has been rife with complaints that this year's NFL playoff teams are a relatively poor crop. Where are Lombardi's Packers? Shula's Dolphins? Landry's Cowboys? Walsh's 49ers? Belichick's Patriots? It's true that there does not seem to have been a single dominant squad, one destined for greatness. But the upside is that the games have been interesting and close enough to keep us watching. These penultimate, pre-Super Bowl matchups look to be no different.

AFC Championship

Pittsburgh @ Denver (-3)—The Steelers look tough and determined, but it's hard to bet against the Broncos on their home field. It'll sure be interesting to see which QB, Ben Roethlisberger or Jake Plummer, rises to the occasion. But maybe the offenses are equal, which means the defenses will determine things. Both are very good. Falling back on old benchmarks, the Broncos are at home and had a better record all season long.

Prediction: Denver 20, Pittsburgh 16

NFC Championship

Carolina @ Seattle (-3.5)—Another game that could go either way. Carolina may have beaten the Bears on their road to Seattle, but they took some injury hits in that game and appear to be slightly worse for wear. Seattle has the home-field advantage, a solid offensive line, and a defense that looks to be just now feeling its oats. Don't expect Carolina WR Steve Smith to repeat his all-world performance against the Bears.

Prediction: Seattle 23, Carolina 17

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Main Event: Dave Kindred's Sound and Fury Probes the Nexus of Ali and Cosell's Strangely Symbiotic Relationship

Author: Dave Kindred
Title: Sound and Fury: The Parallel Lives and Fateful Friendship of Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell
Publisher: Free Press
Price: $27
ISBN: 0743262115

Yesterday was Muhammad Ali's birthday. He turned 64. I guess that means he's getting to be, officially, an old man. But those who have followed The Greatest since he burst onto the scene as the world heavyweight champion in 1964, will also remember that, by 1981, when he closed out his career with a senseless defeat at the hands of the mediocre Trevor Berbick, Ali had already started to appear physically and mentally over the hill.

With his indisputably beautiful physique, his brash mouthiness, and his media magnetism, Ali always seemed like he would be the one American boxer to avoid a pathetic end. He lives now quietly, with his fourth wife, Lonnie, on a smallish farm in southern Michigan, and maybe, given what happens to a lot of fighters, Ali might be considered lucky. He earned millions and millions of dollars in his nearly 20-year career, but with opportunists and hangers-on constantly lurking nearby—Ali's money often spent before it was earned—it's nice to know that he came away with enough to let him leave the public arena and live with some dignity.

No one wanted to face the fact that Ali had succumbed like many before him to the ravages of his sport's physical demands. But you don't amass a 56-5 record in the ring without enduring thousands of body blows, no matter how adroit you are in returning punches, or how light on your feet you can be. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" was the Ali credo, and it worked for a long while. Alas, the champ was drawn into the same Sisyphian ordeal characteristic of prize fighters: after each "prize" was won, he had to start all over, had to keep fighting to pay the enormous bills.

For a good while, the public listened to official proclamations that Ali wasn't a victim of brutality, that instead it was a Parkinson's-type condition or possibly a pesticide poisoning that accounted for his slurred speech, his plodding gait, and his less-than-attentive demeanor once he entered private life. Ali remained lovable because we wanted him that way, and when he lit the torch for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, we drew some psychic salve from knowing that he at least was able to pull off that symbolic act, however truly death-defying (and touch-and-go) it actually was.

But we get straighter dope from veteran sportswriter Dave Kindred in his forthcoming Sound and Fury: The Parallel Lives and Fateful Friendship of Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell. Writes Kindred:

"In layman's terms, dementia pugilistica is 'punch drunk.' It signifies injury to a boxer's brain that results in diminished cognitive ability and can lead to psychiatric changes. Neither of the diagnostic possibilities for Ali was a happy one, but dementia pugilistica was among his sport's most appalling consequences. Joe Louis drifted in cocaine-addled madness. Nurses put Sugar Ray Robinson in a diaper. Floyd Patterson could not remember his wife's name even as she cared for him. Ingemar Johansson lived in a special-care home. Jerry Quarry died at age fifty-three. Maybe the greater the fighter, the greater the brain damage because his career put him against the best competition for the longest time. There was no greater fighter than Muhammad Ali."

Kindred's book is like that. It aims to put Ali and Howard Cosell, his witting TV pitchman, into the spotlight once again, but it also reads us the riot act about the garish elements of both men's controversial careers, which intertwined fortuitously at a time when boxing was still a prime sport (in fact, was entering a Golden Age) and TV sports coverage got bolder and more technically sophisticated. Kindred's own journalism career intersected the Ali-Cosell partnership, and he knew both men well enough. And while the early chapters almost lead one to believe that Kindred is after hagiography, the depth of his subjects, the force of their personalities, and their almost surreally colorful impact on American media eventually leads to imperatively balanced analysis. The biographical details are already fairly well known, but Kindred skillfully weaves them into his broader, more ambitious text.

Here's Cosell, the pushy Brooklyn Jew who, fairly late in life, parlayed his connections as a lawyer into a broadcasting career. "Cosell had passed through sports journalism," Kindred concludes, with Cosell at his apex, after melding with Ali and assaulting football fans in his role as color commentator on ABC's still-newish "Monday Night Football" telecast. "Those elements once thought to be disqualifying liabilities—his vulpine countenance, that Klaxon voice, his penchant for melodramatic blovation—catalpulted him from the simple stardom of a prime-time network television show into the rare air of show-business celebrity."

It's all true, even though there were still millions—maybe even a majority of the audience—who resented Cosell's hucksterism that passed for journalism (of whatever kind) and resented the fact that they had no recourse to his obnoxious, arguably meritless presence. Cosell clawed his way into our ears and before our eyes and all we could do was smirk and think what apparently a bunch of television executives had thought before us: "Well, hell, if he wants it that badly, give him what he wants. Anything to get him out of our hair!" His tactics to success worked because he was one of the boys in all the important ways: Of New York, Jewish, egomaniacal.

Cosell was entertaining because—and maybe only because—he was awful. He didn't really know sports. He wasn't statistically hip, he wasn't historically keen, he couldn't analyze the gamesmanship with any comparative incision. As Kindred illustrates, what we sometimes heard Cosell say during football broadcasts was fed to him by legendary producer Don Ohlmeyer. But it was Cosell himself who extemporized calling African-American Washington Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett "that little monkey" during a 1983 Monday night game, an episode that exposed Cosell as being as insensitive as the rest of us where race relations were concerned. Cosell tried to deny his words, but millions had heard him, and this from the guy who, according to Kindred, had a "record on race [that] was unimpeachable." That assertion remains a subject for debate. Was Cosell an equal-rights activist, or simply an attention-hungry media personality who knew how to exploit the issue of the day?

"He stood alongside Muhammad Ali," writes Kindred, "lionized and befriended Jackie Robinson and Floyd Patterson, gave Tommie Smith and John Carlos their say, praised outfielder Curt Flood's refusal to be a slave to baseball's owners..." All theoretically so. But is there any evidence that Cosell did any of this for any other reason but that it put him squarely in the middle of the controversies, and hence squarely in front of the TV camera?

Cosell emerges here as a self-aggrandizing antihero—"I am a fucking genius!" he once averred—but it's hard not to be reminded that we did listen to him, and we did laugh at his incessant chattery foolishness (when we weren't scoffing). And there's an upside for sure, because Cosell's essential egotism and neediness were ultimately leavened by his success as a family man—married 46 years to one devoted woman, Emmy—and Kindred's reportage makes it clear that, no matter what the public presupposed about the guy, he apparently had his personal priorities straight. Even his occasional overindulgence in martinis couldn't sully a generally well-deserved clean image. Finally, in an image-conscious line of work, Cosell even knew how to joke about his infamous toupee, proving that maybe he didn't take himself so seriously after all.

His bluster notwithstanding, Ali, on the other hand, was a personal mess. He always looked cooler than Cosell—not that that would take much doing—but Ali's hyperactive, if seemingly confident, public displays were in fact analogous to what was going on in his frenetic, undisciplined private life. He married many times—a mistake, a strong woman, a bimbo, a caretaker. He philandered, he allowed marginal characters into his entourage, and he used his own celebrity shamelessly. The public often chortled at his treatment of his rivals, but he was unforgiving and nasty when he called Sonny Liston "a black bear," or when he dubbed Joe Frazier "ugly." So much for being a credit to your race. Ali didn't elevate his sport so much as he hyped it—with Cosell to help him do just that. Everyone concerned profited, but the idea that Ali was a torch-bearer for black equality can't be affirmed. He didn't help his cause when he fought the draft in 1967. "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," Ali boasted. But neither, probably, did the 55,000 who died in the dubious fray, many of them black American males.

Ironic it was that Ali's most controversial and ill-advised affiliation was with the Nation of Islam, a relationship that ultimately offered him the "out" he needed when the Supreme Court reconsidered his appeal for draft exemption as a conscientious objector. Ali used his Black Muslim status to bulwark his "anti-war" stance with the Court, and the tide eventually turned his way. He never went to jail—the appeal process took care of that—and in 1971 he resumed his fight career to greater glory and bigger paydays. Kindred quotes Court scholar David O'Brien, who isolated Ali as "a symbol of the troubled '60s." Symbol, yes. But certainly not a casualty.

Ali was an uneducated naif when it came to real issues, and once Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad got his talons into his youthful, impressionable hide, Ali's chance to develop as a savvy, independently minded sports superstar faded almost immediately. At first, Ali's NOI involvement led him to Malcolm X, whom he admired and liked personally. (In fact, Ali's first chosen Muslim name was Cassius X, later overridden by the megalomaniacal Elijah.) But when Malcolm dared to buck the system, seeing Elijah for what he was—a blasphemer, a fornicator—it got him killed. Conveniently, Ali had already distanced himself from the younger minister, and, like St. Peter himself, had denied his ex-master at least three times. Now Ali was eternally in the NOI clutches. They managed him, took their pound of monetary flesh while he got beaten to a pulp, and forever instilled in him the fear of their thuggish wrath.

Ali's premature physical deterioration shocked a public that knew him so well as a godly athlete. Suddenly it was Requiem for a Heavyweight all over again. He hid the erosion of his talents fairly well, but in a trice he'd become a sad, if still sympathetic, figure.

Cosell passed away at 77 in 1995. Emmy had preceded him in death, and he soon deigned to follow her. Maybe because the odds with the hereafter were better for love and devotion than what was left in his Upper East Side Manhattan apartment building. Ali rests on his farm, trotted out occasionally to make an appearance for a cause or two. But he's mostly as absent as Cosell.

Sound and Fury is engrossing stuff. One is tempted to say it's like watching a train wreck, but it's only like that some of the time, and it's otherwise quite a bit more. With all the sports and media history that it encompasses—the great bouts, the galvanizingly self-conscious televised moments, the bigger-than-life personalities, the enveloping sociopolitical swirl of the '60s and '70s—Kindred's volume gets a ton of mileage out of its two leading characters. It's a main event, for sure, with a narrative that rises and falls with the pulse of an involving title fight, its combatants vying fiercely for personal attention and air time.

After 15 rounds, you'd have to score it a draw.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

NFL Notebook, January 15, 2006

Divisional Playoff Results:

Seattle 20, Washington 10
Denver 27, New England 13
Pittsburgh 21, Indianapolis 18
Carolina 29, Chicago 21

Important factoid: Not a single 100-yard rusher this weekend, and these were games featuring the likes of Shaun Alexander, Clinton Portis, Edgerrin James, Corey Dillon and Jerome Bettis... The Seattle Seahawks head into the NFC Championship Game hoping that RB Alexander will recover sufficiently from a concussion suffered in the team's victory over the Redskins... The 'Skins made a noble effort against the 'Hawks, but it's hard to advance at this time of the year with a popgun offense. With a tough defense in place, Washington needs to find help at wide receiver, tight end, and maybe even in the backfield, where Portis could use a complementary short-yardage running mate. Then there's the ultimate question of QB Mark Brunell. He's a courageous competitor, but is he the guy who can take the 'Skins to the next level? Drafting any good athlete on defense will also help shore up the team's obvious strength... I guess the Patriots' mystique is now a thing of the past. Still, they had a lot of people believing they would win their game in Denver, and they held on for a good long while, until turnovers kept adding nails to their playoff coffin. This team needs to fine-tune certain areas, but in general they can be expected to return to the postseason at the end of '06. There's simply too much talent on that roster... The Broncos looked strong at home, and Mike Shanahan's team features a balanced attack and an eager defense, and should be favored to defeat Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game... Can the Steelers' keep up their winning streak, which has now reached six games? In general, they did what they had to do against the Colts, and they did the one thing that a team must do in order to stop the Indy offense: Get to Peyton Manning physically. It's been proven time and again that you can't out-think the Colts' QB. But Pittsburgh effectively assaulted the Colts' offensive line, hurrying and sacking Manning without mercy. It sounds simple, but if you rob Manning of time, you rob him of his throwing capabilities. Of course, this is a formula that works against any QB, but is rarely achieved against the Colts. Bill Cowher's defense stepped up hugely and rattled Manning's cage. Despite all the fourth-quarter dramatics and freakish occurrences—Bettis' fumble, Vanderjagt's shanked field-goal try—it was the Steelers holding the Colts' offense to 18 points that was the ultimate story of the game... Observers will once again look at the Colts and ask why they haven't come up big in the playoffs. What might be said about what is still a remarkably gifted football team is, "They're not mean enough." The Colts are talented on both offense and defense, and they're well-coached technically. So while it may sound a little cliched, it's not out of bounds to suggest they lack killer instinct in the clutch, or simply the kind of mental toughness that often distinguishes big-time winners. Maybe they need a "thug" or two on defense, to lead the unrelenting charge and to consistently let opponents know they mean business... Who'd have thought that the Carolina-Chicago game would produce the most points (50) of any game this weekend? What was presumed would be a tough defensive battle turned into a crazy-quilt game of offense, in which case the Carolina triumph surprised no one. The Bears' vaunted D got chewed up for over 400 yards, and that's not how the Bears got it done during the regular season. Steve Smith's performance for the Panthers—12 catches, 218 yards, 2 TDs—was hands-down the stellar performance of the weekend, and despite getting banged up a little, his team goes to Seattle for the conference championship with a legit chance to advance to the Super Bowl... Hats off to the Bears for an exciting season. They're still young, still talented, and still hungry. They need to tweak their offense, and presumably another year under the belt of QB Rex Grossman will help that situation a lot. His performance Sunday was gutty but erratic. His youth and inexperience showed, but the kid's got chutzpah. Like the Redskins, the Bears could use help at the receiver position, and nothing made that point any better than the appearance in the Bears' lineup Sunday of Eddie Berlin, a WR of average skills who couldn't even crack the starting lineup of his previous employers, the Tennessee Titans (9-23 the last two seasons).

Predictions and thumbnail sizeups for the conference championships next week will follow shortly.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Nashville Sports Anchor Curtis Apologizes for On-Air Ageist Remarks, but the Cat Was Already Out of the Bag

Cory Curtis (left), ABC's Nashville affiliate sports anchor, may have dug himself a serious public relations hole. WKRN-TV's Curtis punctuated his Jan. 13 Friday night 10 o'clock news report, concerning incoming 80-year-old Buffalo Bills football exec Marv Levy, with the untoward salvo, "He is OLD!" When he returned from a commercial break, Curtis had obviously been admonished by his fellow anchors to apologize. He did. And he apologized yet again before the broadcast left the air.

Yet Curtis' apology, in fact, could not hide the disdain with which his original remark was uttered. And, in a way, his insensitivity only blows the lid off a very interesting, growing problem in our PC world. It's very common, especially in the arena of sports reporting, to hear the guys and gals under 40, TV and radio jocks alike, to throw out regular reminders that they are "too young to remember that..." They often preface their comments with phrases like, "Well, I'm only 38, so..." or, "I wasn't even born when Super Bowl III took place, so..." There could be the germ of humility in these statements, as if these folks are bowing down to the superior experiential and historical advantage that their elders hold. But more than likely, what they are really saying, subtextually, is, "I'm a lot younger than you, sucker, and I have a long career ahead of me, and guys like you have always been in the way of my advancement, and have you ever thought about retirement?" That, at least, is one possible interpretation.

When the Orange Bowl was held recently, it pitted 79-year-old Penn State coach Joe Paterno versus 76-year-old Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. That's 155 years altogether, and the occasion served as a jumping-off point for network sportscaster Mike Tirico (himself an African American) to interview both gentlemen and to discuss the very issue of age. The word "problem" never came up. It was unclear whether Tirico had any views about aged football coaches, but he seemed to be revelling in the rarefied air of these two senior-citizen college football legends.

The Paterno/Bowden age discussion evoked a TV story of celebration and wonder. Both men expressed a firmly held belief that, as long as they were not facing health problems, they saw no reason not to continue coaching. Given the obvious success of their football programs, it's pretty hard to argue against them. Bowden has been amazingly consistent in the victory department for years and years. So was Paterno, until a few years back when his Nittany Lions turned in a couple of subpar seasons. At 76, Paterno was finally hearing the comments about age, and the reasoning went that his teams' records were a direct result of his hardening arteries. Then surprise... this year Paterno turns in an 11-1 record and a #3 national ranking, capped by victory in the Orange Bowl over a "younger man," Bowden.

I suppose if you use the naysayers' reasoning, then Tennessee Titans' coach Jeff Fisher might be too old as well. His last two teams have turned in records of 5-11 and 4-12, but in his case you only hear people wondering about his efficacy. Presumably his gray matter is all there. Fisher turns 48 on Feb. 25.

We're in an age when you can't say anything about anybody. You can't criticize blacks or Jews, because you'll be accused of racism. You can't criticize women, because then it's sexism. In fact, criticism of any ethnic/minority group is out, lest the dogs of PC-ism be let loose on you. (For some reason, you can attack Catholics—because some of their priests have sexual problems, thus making the entire religion fair game—and you can also attack so-called right-wing Christians, because in the view of most media, those people are "stupid.")

Older folks fit into this scenario as well, and no one knows it better than the American Association of Retired Persons, a high-profile super-activist organization that aims to protect the rights, and promote the concerns, of anybody 50 years of age or older. One of Curtis' off-camera co-anchors uttered the dreaded acronym, "AARP," just as Curtis offered his first apology, and who knows what the group will do once they get wind of this little local episode.

I guess since Curtis apologized on-air, he's at least covered his ass a wee bit. But more formal censure could come from the AARP. And frankly, why not? Why shouldn't older folks fight for the right to be treated with the same dignity that political correctness demands of our treatment of blacks, Latins, Asians, Jews, women, the disabled, etc.? We've got a growing-older passel of Baby Boomers in this country—millions of 'em—not to mention guys like Marv Levy, who was born in 1925. In his heyday in the early '90s, as head coach of the Bills, Levy set a record by taking his team to four straight Super Bowls. He never won one, but nobody can say he wasn't an excellent football coach. Apparently, Levy still has all his marbles, and if he's got the health and energy to take on new duties in rebuilding a struggling franchise, who is anybody to make his age an issue?

Of Levy, Curtis could have said, "Wow! What an amazing guy!" But he didn't. And there was almost venom in his delivery.

It's very interesting what we reveal in unguarded moments. But it's somehow always more interesting what gets revealed in moments of unguarded television. Curtis, otherwise a technically fine sports newsman, has issued his mea culpa, prodded rightfully by his savvy on-air colleagues. Maybe now he needs to go find out what, for him, that moment was all about.

And maybe we can all take a lesson from his gaffe: This is America, and it's okay if you're over 65, maybe black, maybe female, maybe dealing with a physical challenge, or maybe even a white WASP male. You're still entitled to use your brains, and work a job, and be a contributor to society, and earn money, too. And you ought to be able to do it without snide commentary from anyone.

Spanish painter and sculptor Pablo Picasso was born in 1881 and died in 1973. He never stopped working and living to the fullest. We won't all be that lucky, but each of us is entitled to keep going as long as, and as fruitfully as, our energy carries us.

Shame on you, Cory Curtis. Didn't your mother ever tell you to respect your elders?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Sutter's Election to Hall May Pave the Way for Gossage, Smith

I lived in Chicago from 1977 to 1999. I was a huge Cubs fan. I went to my share of baseball games at Wrigley Field. There weren't too many big, big games there, but I was in the crowd the day the 1989 team clinched the NL East title. Otherwise, the Cubs' legacy of frustration is legendary. I did, however, have the pleasure of seeing some great Cubs ballplayers in my time, and yesterday's election of Bruce Sutter into the Baseball Hall of Fame gives pause for reflection.

I'm happy for Sutter (left). His story is a good one. He was originally drafted by the old Washington Senators when he came out of high school, but turned them down for a chance to attend Old Dominion University. One year later, Sutter signed as a free agent with the Cubs. He hurt his arm his first season in minor league ball, and the story goes that he never told his bosses about it, opting instead to pursue surgery on his own. He made it to the Cubs in 1976, and came under the tutelage of Cubs pitching coach Mike Roarke (who, in fact, used to be a catcher in his playing days, with a career batting average of .230). Roarke taught Sutter the split-finger fast ball, a pitch that not only saved his career but propelled him into dominance in the late '70s and early '80s. In fact, the splitter, as it came to be known, was actually a response to Sutter's lack of a fast ball fast enough to get major league hitters out on a consistent basis.

Once Sutter mastered the trick pitch, he was nigh unhittable. From 1977 to 1984, he was the stopper for the Cubs and Cardinals, and batters dreaded seeing him make his way to the mound in the late innings. Sutter's splitter always looked tempting to swing at, mainly because the ball wasn't arriving at the plate with much velocity. For a few years there, it was simply witchcraft: the ball would approach the plate looking ordinary indeed, then suddenly dropped a foot or so. Batters couldn't apply any creative thinking to hitting it. Now you see it, now you don't. Every time Sutter went into his rather workmanlike, decidedly unglamorous wind-up, it was an adventure—for hitters and fans alike. Plus, unlike the knuckleball—baseball's other most notorious trick pitch—Sutter could control the splitter, so hitters couldn't stand there waiting to draw a walk. Sutter once struck out the side against three very good Montreal players—Ellis Valentine, Larry Parrish and Gary Carter—on nine pitches.

Sutter, who never started a game in his entire career, racked up 300 saves when he was done. He also won a World Series with the 1982 Cards. His HOF selection will go down easily enough, because clearly he was a phenomenon, and in that concentrated eight-year period he was king. But his elevation to Cooperstown also raises some niggling questions about relief pitchers and the criteria by which they are judged for HOF membership.

Sutter's successor in Chicago was Lee Smith (left), a guy I saw pitch on numerous occasions. Smith was a giant of a man at 6'6", and he was also one hell of a pitcher. Smith threw smoke the likes of which few have seen since. Instead of finessing batters like Sutter, Smith simply blew them away. He was an imposing physical presence, he was durable, and in his 18-year career he saved 478 games. From 1991-1993 alone, he saved 136 of them. So if Sutter gets in, does Smith? And what of the guy who maybe was the modern-day pioneer for relievers—Goose Gossage? Smith just came onto the ballot this year, garnering 45% support. (75% is required for admission.) Gossage (above), now in his seventh year of Hall eligibility, gained 64.6% of the vote.

This reliever business is tricky. In the old days, a guy became a reliever because he was judged to be not good enough to be a starter. Now they've made a specialty of it, and "closers" routinely register 40+ saves a year, a mark Sutter attained only once. Who can forget Bobby Thigpen, who came out of nowhere to save 57 games for the 1990 Chicago White Sox? Well, fact is, many have forgotten Thigpen, and this business of lesser pitchers having a spectacular year or two in the relief game has become all too commonplace.

Consistency and longevity have always played a key role in HOF voting criteria, but it needs to be especially so for relievers. Sutter follows Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley into the Hall, the only relievers elected in the history of the place. It took Sutter 13 years to gain his well-deserved accolade, which is maybe as it should be.

Others left standing at the altar again this year, and wondering if they'll ever make it to Cooperstown, are Jim Rice, Andre Dawson and Bert Blyleven. All three will have to hold their breath in 2007 it appears, because next year's ballot will include, for the first time, Cal Ripken, Jr., Tony Gwynn and Mark McGwire. Ripken and Gwynn have to be shoo-in, first ballot nominees, and the road to HOF enshrinement may only get rockier for guys like Rice and Dawson, as the years get further away from their considerable accomplishments.

Patrick Gets at Truth in Edwards Affair, but We'll Go Him One Better

Sometimes it's easy to think that Dan Patrick is getting soft, that the ESPN superstar has become too much a legend in his own mind, that he's sucked up to one too many jocks. Then Patrick will redeem himself, as he did with today's radio assessment of the Herman Edwards situation. You're right, Dan: Herman Edwards (pictured, left) does owe New York Jets fans an apology—for hastily packing his overnight bag, leaving behind an overweight wife and a houseful of crying kids, and hopping the next available bus to Kansas City. Edwards' snide comments at his press conference, upon accepting the job as the Chiefs' new head coach, were also rather disturbing. "What happens in New York stays in New York," Edwards said. Doh! Really, Herm?

It's a matter of public record, actually. The Jets were 4-12. They sucked. They lost Chad Pennington and Curtis Martin to injury, and Edwards couldn't plug the holes in a leaky boat. Considering that the Jets were preseason favorites to vie for at least a wild-card spot in the playoffs, you'd have thought there was more here than 4-12 material, even with the injuries. Of course, a similar thing happened in Green Bay this year, but all Mike Sherman's 4-12 record got him was a pink slip.

In a gross example of "It's not what you know, but who you know," Edwards gets a new job—courtesy of his buddy Chiefs GM Carl Peterson—with more money, and he doesn't have to break a sweat wondering who his skill players are going to be for next year, as he takes over a playoff-caliber team with a solid QB (Trent Green) and a studly young running back (Larry Johnson).

But even if we can't fault Edwards for going where the grass is greener, we expect more from him in the way he departed New York. It's bad enough that we now see that coaches are as whorish as the ballplayers, but maybe this is worse because Edwards is (supposedly) an authority figure, and, unlike the players, who risk career-ending injury every moment they're on the field, his Jets contract was guaranteed, meaning he gets paid even if he sucks and even if he gets fired and even if he tears his ACL.

The deal is done. Edwards gets a pass on a lousy year, and he now starts fresh with a minimum of growing pains. He leaves a chaotic household in New York, where Jets GM Terry Bradway has his work cut out for him finding a new coach willing to step in to a tough situation.

It's also very ironic how Edwards has recently made comments regarding his blackness. According to him, he's living proof that the coaching business has finally gotten beyond the realm of the equal opportunity mindset, that a black man can now be considered fully on his own personal merits. Maybe so, Herm. Maybe so. And maybe your mediocre 39-41 record is the best evidence of that.

On the other hand, Edwards will never be the poster boy for the next Million Man March, a project that was designed to puncture stereotypes of the irresponsible African American male who can't be counted on to stick it out through his familial relationships or put bread on the table for wife and kids. Alas, Herm comes off here as a prime example of the image the MMM was aiming to deflate: an opportunistic sleazeball happy to leave a house in disarray just to make life easier for himself. And he did it all with arrogance. And he hasn't apologized, either.

What have we learned from this episode? That being a jerk is not an equal opportunity proposition, and that guys who take the easy way out come in all colors. (Also, that I won't be rooting for the Chiefs in 2006.)

What the Jets need to do now is find an energetic coach of whatever age—but of sure character—give him a five-year contract, and let him get to work rebuilding that team. Maybe it won't take as long as it seems. (The Jets, for example, sure got Edwards' picture off their Web site lickety-split.) And maybe they'll kick Edwards' ass in the playoffs someday. We can dream.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Low Seeds May Not Be Finished Wreaking NFL Postseason Havoc

All the home teams are favored to win the next round of NFL playoff games. Yet there's plenty of drama before us, and each game is a rematch between teams that played during the regular season. The #6-seeded Redskins travel to top-seeded Seattle, a team they defeated in Washington on Oct. 2, 20-17. The rejuvenated Patriots head into Denver for a huge Saturday night matchup against a Broncos team that defeated them 28-20 on the same field on Oct. 16. On Sunday, the #6-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers, also having gotten their second wind, go into Indianapolis for a showdown with the top-seeded Colts, who beat them at home on Nov. 28, 26-7. Carolina ventures into Chicago's Soldier Field, where the Bears beat them 13-3 back on Nov. 20.

Only the Seattle-Washington game looks like a done deal. While Pittsburgh certainly has its work cut out for themselves, the Steelers are on a five-game winning streak, and are healthier than they were when the Colts humbled them on a Monday night. The deck looks stacked against the visitors this time around, but don't be surprised if there's an upset or two. Especially with Carolina and New England getting a second look at their tough opponents.

The spreads are listed for entertainment value only. Bet against them if you dare.

Washington (11-6) @ Seattle (13-3)—The Redskins are hurting physically, and their offense looks drained. A gut-checking defensive effort last week against the Buccaneers won them an improbable first-round victory, plus the chance to see what they're really made of against a seemingly dominant Seahawks squad. The 'Hawks' defense doesn't get much respect, but in fact only two other NFC teams—Bears, Panthers—allowed fewer points this year. League MVP Shaun Alexander leads the Seattle offensive attack, and he's a savage, earth-stomping, yardage-eating, touchdown-scoring machine. Seattle QB Matt Hasselback is also pretty darn good. His receivers aren't elite, but they're good enough to balance Alexander the Great's running. These teams met in Week 4 in Washington, and, like many before and after them, the Seahawks bested the Redskins in statistics but lost the game. That was a long time ago. And even though the Redskins have obviously improved, and are on a six-game winning streak, taking their beat-up squad on the road once more against a rested opponent like Seattle has to be a losing proposition. If 'Skins coach Joe Gibbs can work another miracle, then we might start to believe that he's dabbling in witchcraft instead of putting his vaunted faith in the Lord.

Spread: Seattle by 9

Prediction: Seattle 24, Washington 17

New England (11-6) @ Denver (13-3)—The Patriots look ready to defend their Super Bowl crown.
The Broncos have been consistently good all year, surprisingly so on defense, with only the Colts yielding fewer points in the AFC. Plus, the Broncos have a balanced offense that both runs and passes with efficiency. They're led by QB Jake Plummer, whose 90.2 quarterback rating includes a 60.7% completion rate, 18 TDs and only 7 INTs. The 1-2-3 punch of Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell and Ron Dayne gained well over 2,000 yards on the ground, and receivers Rod Smith and Ashley Lelie can go get 'em long and short. With the home field advantage, a Super Bowl-winning coach in Mike Shanahan, and plenty of rest, the Broncos are logically a slight favorite. If anyone has a chance to end the Patriots' 10-game playoff winning streak, it might be the Broncos. But it's gonna take a lot to break down Tom Brady and that New England mental toughness. Plummer is 1-3 lifetime in the playoffs.

Spread: Denver by 3.5

Prediction: New England 24, Denver 23

Pittsburgh (12-5) @ Indianapolis (14-2)—The Steelers are playing dominant football.
They've won their last five games by a combined 146-50 score. QB Ben Roethlisberger is healthy, as is his supporting cast, and the D is hitting hard. It's been a while since we've had a look at the Colts' "A" game, and in fact nine of their victories this season came against some very bad teams (Titans, Texans, Ravens, Browns, 49ers, Rams, Cardinals). Still, they beat better teams as well (Patriots, Bengals, Steelers, Jaguars twice), and they'll be awfully tough at home. Is there any possibility the Colts could choke? Believe it or not, their defense might have more to say about the outcome than their high-profile offense. Keep an eye on this one.

Spread: Indianapolis by 9.5

Prediction: Indianapolis 24, Pittsburgh 20

Carolina (12-5) @ Chicago (11-5)—Fresh off a decisive trouncing of the Giants in the Meadowlands,
the Panthers take their show on the road once more, into a hostile environment where rabid Bears fans are ga-ga over their young, defensively savvy football team. But the Bears don't have much of an offense, no matter what they say about the re-emergence of Rex Grossman at quarterback. He's still wet behind the ears where the playoffs are concerned, and one or two defensive breakdowns by Chicago could spell the end of their magical year. The Panthers' offense is efficient, but that's about all you can say about them. It's their defense that has buoyed them up in recent times, and this team is only two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance. If the Bears make some big plays and get turnovers, momentum could carry them into the conference championship game. They've been kicking ass defensively all season long, but will they succumb to playoff pressure?

Spread: Chicago by 3

Prediction: Carolina 15, Chicago 10

'Skins Upset Buccaneers in Biggest Surprise of Wild-Card Round; Home-Field Advantage Helps Only Patriots

Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. Just ask the Washington Redskins. Their 17-10 victory Saturday over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs defied all logic. Joe Gibbs & Co. took a page from the book of the 1983 Chicago White Sox, whose artless approach to baseball evoked the phrase "winning ugly." Now the 'Skins are on their way to Seattle for a divisional round contest.

The big "W" aside, here's what's wrong with the Redskins:

1. QB Mark Brunell has had two consecutive bad games. He was flat-out terrible against the Bucs, completing 7 out of 15 passes for 41 yards (0 TDs, 1 INT). (Yes, those numbers are correct. Yes, he played all four quarters.)

2. RB Clinton Portis, courageous as ever, is getting the living daylights pounded out of him. His shoulders and back are killing him. He had to be spelled by Ladell Betts in the Bucs game, in which Portis gained 53 yards on 16 carries. Is there any gas left in his tank?

3. Three weeks ago against the Cowboys, the Redskins' excellent offensive guard Randy Thomas (left) broke his leg and was lost for the season. His replacement is the remarkable Ray Brown (right), who, at 43, is quite an NFL story. Brown is to be admired for sure, but his presence has to signal a drop-off for the 'Skins' OL.

4. DE Renaldo Wynn, having a solid if unspectacular year, broke his left arm in the Bucs game. He's out for the rest of the playoffs.

5. The 'Skins best cornerback, Shawn Springs, had to sit out the Bucs game with a severe groin injury. The team hopes he can return for the Seattle game, except when he returned for the Philly game last week, after nursing the same injury, he aggravated it more. He'll be tough to count on.

6. Rookie safety Carlos Rogers is hurting also, but he toughed it out against Tampa Bay.

7. Safety Sean Taylor is really gifted, but also really out of touch with reality and decency, as expressed when he spat on Bucs RB Michael Pittman, earning himself an ejection from the game and a probable fine from the league. If the league wants to really slap his hand, they could suspend him for the rest of the season. Smart thinking there, Sean.

Yet with all this downside, the 'Skins outlasted the Buccaneers. Their defense played grittily, to be sure, but they were also helped by playoff first-timer Chris Simms, the Bucs' talented young quarterback. Simms played a very good game, in fact, especially for a guy seeing his first postseason action. Despite early mistakes, Simms got the Tampa Bay offense in gear, and his late-4th-quarter pass to Edell Shepherd should have gained the home team a tie. In an officiating controversy that turned Bucs fans' hopes into tears, Shepherd couldn't control the ball enough to get credit for the score. TD denied, whereupon Simms ended up tanking his final two plays, the last resulting in his second critical interception.

So the Redskins will plug the holes caused by injury and try to suck it up one more time in Seattle, against a Seahawks team that is 13-3 and seeking its first playoff victory since 1984. Believe it or not, Washington's defense looks to have the ability to shut down Shaun Alexander, Seattle's one-man wrecking-crew RB. If they focus solely on Alexander, contain him well, and force Seattle QB Matt Hasselback to beat them through the air, the Redskins stand a chance. But only if they find their offense. Brunell & Co. looked downright woeful in Round 1. The Seahawks led the league this year with 452 points. They don't usually get involved in low-scoring defensive games. The Redskins' D can bring it for sure, but you still gotta score points to defeat your opponent.


New England 28, Jacksonville 3—The Patriots only led by 7-3 at the half. Then Tom Brady got the offense in gear and LB Willie McGinest terrorized Jaguars QBs Byron Leftwich and David Garrard for 4 1/2 sacks. It's no mirage: New England looks to be playing as well as ever. Now, as the only first-round home team to come out a winner, they head to Denver for a real test.

Carolina 23, NY Giants 0—Maybe the only surprise here was the totality of the Panthers' dominance. Giants had been struggling defensively, but their offense went south too, with Eli Manning throwing three costly interceptions and Tiki Barber never getting untracked. Now the Panthers make a return trip to Chicago for a second-round game against the Bears, who defeated them convincingly earlier in the regular season.

Pittsburgh 31, Cincinnati 17—The MVP of this game was Steelers defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen, whose unpenalized, cheap-shot (and arguably late) hit on Bengals' QB Carson Palmer resulted in a torn knee ligament that knocked the Pro Bowler out of the game and into an appointment with off-season surgery. Even with sub Jon Kitna at the helm, the Bengals held on for a 17-14 halftime lead. Then the Steelers' defense started to intimidate, and a trick play by Pittsburgh's offense sealed the Bengals' fate. This WAS a game, and would've remained so if Palmer was there to run his exciting offense. Now the Steelers head to Indianapolis to face the best team in the league.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Now All Vince Young Needs Is a More Distinctive Name

Yes, University of Texas QB Vince Young should turn pro. Even if he'd lost the Rose Bowl, he should have turned pro. Probably lost a little in all the hoopla of Young's astounding BCS Championship game performance—267 yards passing, 200 yards rushing, 3 TDs scored—are the equally amazing stats he'd already compiled during the regular season. Young's quarterback rating pre-Rose Bowl was 163.9. I've never been sure how they figure this stuff out, but the highest rating a QB can have in the pro game is 158.3. Whatever. The guy's a stud athlete no matter how you slice it, but it's important to remember that the Rose Bowl performance was something new only to those who haven't really been following Young's exploits. He also averaged 6.8 yards per carry during the regular season. He threw for 3,036 yards (26 TDs) and totaled 993 yards on the ground (12 TDs). The guy's absolutely ready for the NFL, and it would be a big mistake for him to return to college. He can complete his undergrad degree whenever he wants. Meanwhile, millions of dollars await him, and whoever drafts him better be prepared to shell out the dough.

Fact is, Young might be worth every penny. He's like a Michael Vick, only with an upside. That is to say, Young's talents are demonstrably superior to Vick's, which is saying something considering that Vick was seen as a New Generation athlete when he came out of Virginia Tech. Vick has proved to have feet of clay in the NFL, and it's still an iffy proposition that he's going to become a top-rank QB. He seems to be getting worse actually, and five years into his career he's probably not as optimally strong or fast as he was when he entered the NFL in 2001. It's hard to believe how soon another college player has eclipsed Vick's promise, but there you have it.

There's been a tendency to over-analyze the Rose Bowl, with critics saying that USC's defense had a lot to do with Young's numbers. It was a little puzzling on that final Young TD—Where were the Trojan linebackers? Well, they were in the middle and on the left side of the field, presumably covering Texas receivers. That makes sense since Young throws a wicked pass and seems capable of hitting receivers from anywhere on the field. But the play only pointed up what a dangerous player Young is. He only needs a small window of opportunity to allow his feet to make the big play, and once he gets up a head of steam, he's a 6'5," 230-pound juggernaut, with quickness to boot. Maybe USC should have assigned a couple of guys strictly to follow Young wherever he went. But I dunno. In that case, he might've just thrown more TD passes.

I will say this about Young: He doesn't operate out of the backfield with a typical technique. His handoffs are eccentric, to say the least, and one can only assume this has everything to do with the general option style of offense that is built around him. He'll need to work on that in the pros. But, heck, thank God he'll have to work on something in the pros. The Rose Bowl exhibition he put on was so good that it dwarfed the excellent performances of USC stars Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, both of whom are guaranteed first-round NFL draft picks.

And by the way, enough of this crap about Leinart and Bush "choking." They both had excellent games, and clearly the Trojans had a lot more weapons than Texas, especially when you throw in RB LenDale White and WR Dwayne Jarrett . The Trojans' balanced, pro-style attack was a joy to watch, and they put plenty of points up against a physical, psyched-up Texas defense. No, I don't know why SoCal was favored by a touchdown. Probably the so-called experts went with what they knew they had in USC. They knew Vince Young was gonna show up as well, but what they didn't know was that he'd put on his Superman costume.

It was a great game. For once, the BCS plotters and planners looked like geniuses.

Now we need to work on Young's Web presence. Believe it or not, there's a Melbourne, Fla., media wannabe named Vince Young (right), who has a Web site ( I guess if the guy's shrewd enough, he can sell the domain name to the real Vince Young's "people," once the QB signs his pro contract.

But wait: There's another Vincent Young. He's a celebrity of some kind. He's pictured here (left), and he's what you get if you Google "Vincent Young." I'm probably out of it where pop culture is concerned. I have no idea who this guy is. He looks pretty "Magoo," if you ask me. You can bet that if he's an actor or a singer, he probably sucks.

Oh well. Maybe Vince Young the football player should find a new name and make all this silliness go away. How about Clark Kent?

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Monday, Bloody Monday: NFL Head Coaches Drop Like Flies in Season-Ending Aftermath

It's a good thing that NFL head coaches are well-paid. If you can get through, say, a three-year, multi-million-dollar contract, then you can at least take your ignominious dismissal (when it inevitably comes) and go buy a farm to live out your natural life. Or maybe you go buy a little drinking establishment and set yourself up as bartender for the rest of your days, stashing tips in a big glass jar and doling out hard-earned wisdom to barflies on Sunday afternoons while TVs throughout your place broadcast the entire NFL schedule.

The future is now for the raft of head coaches axed by their frustrated superiors in the past 48 hours. The list includes: Dom Capers, Houston; Mike Sherman, Green Bay; Mike Tice, Minnesota; Norv Turner, Oakland; Mike Martz, St. Louis; and Jim Haslett, New Orleans. Throw in Dick Vermeil's retirement from the Chiefs and Dick Jauron's lame-duck fill-in situation at Detroit (following Steve Mariucci's mid-season firing), and you have eight new head-coach openings that need to be filled for 2006.

The bloody deeds were done, characteristically, without an ounce of sympathy. Heck, Martz (left) spent most of the season in a hospital with a heart infection. He's mending now, and says he still wants to coach. Tice actually had a winning record, 9-7, and his team won 7 of its last 9 games. But for Tice (right), it's a PR problem: he was caught selling off his Super Bowl tickets last year, and then his players took any hope for his career on a weird midnight cruise on a yacht named Orgygate. The Haslett situation seems grossly unfair. Should we shift blame for Hurricane Katrina from FEMA's "Brownie" to him? Haslett (below, right) ought to get a medal just for logging in all those insane miles between New Orleans, Baton Rouge, San Antonio, the Meadowlands, and the eight other road venues into which he had to lead his shell-shocked troops. Sherman (left) put up a damn fine 57-39 record in six seasons at Green Bay. This year's 4-12 finish was a direct result of massive injuries, which also had a huge impact on Brett Favre's efficacy at quarterback. The Packer front office will be lucky to replace him with a coach half as good.

As for the Capers and the Jauron/Mariucci situations, we might consider that they killed the wrong rat. Poor Capers (left) has had two head coaching positions in his pro career—both times with expansion teams. The guy needs a break. He was especially hamstrung in Houston by general manager Charley Casserly's personnel decisions. Four years later, the Texans still have a lousy offensive line. You can talk all you want about acquiring skill players—David Carr, Andre Johnson, maybe USC's Reggie Bush upcoming—but it's all meaningless unless you have an OL that can protect your QB and open decent holes for even average running backs. Drafting skill players is pointless without a strong foundation. One need look no further than Detroit for another example of similar bad planning, where GM Matt Millen (who, by the way, was an annoying blowhard of a TV announcer) kept drafting wide receivers while overlooking a mediocre running attack and a do-nothing defense. Maybe Casserly and Millen can go into business together, as consultants for how to dismantle and undermine a pro football team.

The Turner situation in Oakland was simply pathetic. Turner (left) is a smart offensive coach, and he really was a fairly good head coach in his previous stint in Washington. Still, he never unlocked the key to righting a ship that had sunk in 2003 under Bill Callahan only a year removed from a Super Bowl appearance. The Raiders have never looked so bad, organizationally or on the field, and really, maybe it's a blessing for Norv, who seems like a good guy and ought to easily find a home elsewhere.

But we needn't feel sorry for these guys. Most of them will rebound one way or the other, and they can't be hurting financially. If they don't grab another head coaching job, or a good assistant coach position with another team, then they can turn to the college ranks a la Callahan (Nebraska) or Pete Carroll (USC). Or they can head into broadcasting, since it's been proven that you need no prior experience or demonstrated talent to get into that game. Just ask Matt Millen.

Somehow, tending bar or clearing the North 40 might actually be more fulfilling than coaching an NFL team. The money's certainly not as good, but at least you know your job will be there when you wake up in the morning.