Sunday, April 30, 2006

Titans Get Young: The Great Experiment Begins

Sam's Place Sports Bar & Grill (pictured, left) in Nashville's Hillsboro Village is a fine place to watch the NFL draft. It's 11 o'clock on Saturday morning, and too early for alcohol, but that doesn't stop the predominantly male (all ages) crowd from getting started. Beer and sandwiches all around, and the clientele of about 30 or so, along with a new barmaid whom I've never seen before—with a nice, sensually protruding belly and a just barely visible lower-back tattoo peeking out of her low-rise jeans—are tuned into the big screen and ESPN's broadcast of the NFL Draft.

Things happen early because the hometown Tennessee Titans—9-23 the past two seasons—will draft in the third spot in the opening round, and will get their choice of promising quarterbacks: Vince Young of Texas or Matt Leinart of USC. There's a palpable tension at this generally affable and large drinking establishment, and the guy next to me, about 30, is asking questions.

"Who do you want 'em to take?" he says.

"Well, I've gone around and around about it. I was dreaming of it last night..."

"They've gotta go with Leinart."

"Well," I say, but without much conviction, "I don't know. Young's amazing. And it seems like they like him."

"Leinart's the better quarterback. He's ready to play. Norm Chow [Titans offensive coordinator] coached him at USC. It's a perfect fit."

"Yeah, but Young is an astounding talent."

"Hey, remember Akili Smith?"

Actually, I did. Akili Smith was an African American quarterback from Oregon chosen as the #3 overall pick in the 1999 draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. He was selected just after Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb, and BEFORE Edgerrin James, Ricky Williams, Torry Holt, Champ Bailey, David Boston, Chris McAlister, Daunte Culpepper, and Jevon Kearse. Smith was out of the game by 2005, a complete and unadulterated NFL bust, who in fact never played another down of football after 2002, and played in only three games after the year 2000. Smith was 6'3," weighed 220, had a gun for an arm and was known to be both mobile and elusive. He couldn't cut it. His career QB rating was 52.8.

"Well, Vince Young is another Akili Smith," my new friend insisted.

I said, "Well, I don't know—"

"Come on! He had a Wonderlic of 3!"

I know sarcasm when I hear it. I don't even know what the Wonderlic—an intelligence test administered to prospective NFL players—goes up to, but I'm sure Young had to have gotten more than a 3. (Didn't he? Now I started to, uh, wonder.)

Then NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue strode to the podium at Radio City Music Hall. (Yes, pro football certainly is high-class popular stage entertainment. Why else would they mount this media-frenzied extravaganza at the home of the Rockettes?) You could hear a pin drop at Sam's, as Tagliabue announced that the Tennessee Titans, with the third overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, selected...Vince Young of the University of Texas.

The mixed reaction among the barflies was strange indeed. My friend to my right threw his hands up in desperation. He scoffed loudly. He banged his fist. Then he grabbed his cell phone and called a buddy to commiserate.

Some of the guys in the bar almost chuckled. A nervous kind of chuckle. The kind of chuckle that says, "Omigod, they went with the big fish. But can he swim?"

On reflection, I had the feeling more than 50% of the crowd felt the Titans had made a calculated error.

Young is an immensely gifted athlete, but Leinart can definitely play quarterback. He did it hugely at Southern California for three straight years. He executed a pro-style offense with assuredness. He won a ton of games. He's poised in the pocket, he hands off efficiently, he knows how to run a typical NFL offensive set, he throws with generally good accuracy and he knows how to find receivers in the seams. Only his deep ball is in some question. He indeed was tutored by Chow at USC, and he appears the closest thing in many years the NFL has had to a rookie QB who could probably start at his position on Opening Day and be wholly competitive. In fact, if Leinart had opted to come out for the draft in 2005, he was projected as the #1 overall pick. Waiting a year supposedly has cost him $16 million, since he dropped down to a #10 pick (by the ecstatic Phoenix Cardinals, who can now put Leinart in a backfield with Edgerrin James, and throwing to speedster wideouts Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald).

It's actually a rather nice ending for Leinart, who had to sweat watching a lot of lesser names get drafted ahead of him.

But what of Young and the Titans?

The scuttlebutt is that Chow lobbied for Leinart. He lost out to general manager Floyd Reese, who is close to Titans owner Bud Adams, but also is a rather strong-willed fellow and a total pro GM who has had marvelous selections in the past. Reese is very good at what he does, though admittedly, Titans fans have gotten antsy with the team's dismal performances the past two seasons. (Where are all the good draft choices now?)

The fact that Coach Jeff Fisher went to Southern Cal was supposed to be another harbinger than Leinart would get the nod. But let's face it, that's a dumb reason to want to draft somebody.

So this one smells like Reese's pick all the way—with Fisher and Chow left to find out exactly what this 6'5," 230-pound Adonis can do. And what he can't do. Like hand-off with precision accuracy. Or function with poise in a pro offense. Or read defensive schemes. Or look off his primary receiver. Or know when to throw and when to run, preferably doing more of the former.

Young is a big, soon-to-be-expensive project. With improvements due in their linebacking corps and holes to plug in the still-shaky secondary, and support needed in the offensive line as well, the Titans opted for glitzy offense in selecting Young and then adding Southern Cal tough-yardage runner LenDale White in the second round. It gives the team a new look, for sure. White, in fact, could be a great one. Then there's Young, now in the almost impossible position of savior.

Young (left, on the cover of SI, winning this year's Rose Bowl) throws the ball kind of side-armed. That's very weird for a pro QB. Yet he throws with seeming accuracy and speed. His superb athleticism makes him look tremendous in everything he does. He's so fast and strong, that even when he seems to be in trouble, he always finds a spectacular way out of it, using either his arm or legs. Once he's loose on the run, he's hell on wheels, and he's hard to bring down.

The great experiment, however, entails reigning in the daredevil and making of him a consistent, scheme-focused NFL QB who will know how and when to turn on his magic powers as a runner without handicapping the overall offensive plan. This is something that current Titans incumbent QB Steve McNair did extremely well, lest we forget that he took the team to Super Bowl XXXIV and was the co-MVP of the league (with Peyton Manning) in 2003.

Fisher, echoing Reese, speaks of Young almost as a racehorse, talking about "bringing him along slowly." At the same time, he gushed about the new kinds of offensive plays that can go into the playbook. Chow spoke not of toying with the eccentric Young mechanics, but instead of preparing him to execute a game plan and to deal with the other mental demands of his position. He's clearly a beautiful horse, Vince Young, but can he round into form?

Under the circumstances, coming off two lousy seasons, it seems hard to believe the Titans will slog through another mediocre year while Superman sits on the bench holding a clipboard. For box office reasons alone, it would be tempting to feed him to the fire. Even improvising, and being chased all over the field by, say, the Jacksonville Jaguars' swarming defense, he might win 5 games, which would be an improvement over last year's 4-12 mark.

The idea of bringing Young along slowly makes perfect sense—in a perfect world. But McNair is older, on the downside, and has contract problems. His backup, Billy Volek, looked subpar in 2005, after an excellent 2004 when he got a lot of playing time due to McNair's ongoing injury woes. Next in line is Matt Mauck. Hmmmm...

In drafting Young, the Titans made a ballsy and risky, risky move. They opted to focus on the guy's upside all the way, and are gambling that he can learn to do this right—to grasp in time what Matt Leinart already has a handle on.

I semi-hollered out to no one in particular, "Get ready for a lot of exciting losses..."

A few of the regulars semi-nodded. There was no clear-cut jubilation at Sam's, that's for sure.

On the other hand, the franchise is down, and Young represents more than assured mechanical efficiency. He represents innovative, dynamic play, and the hope for a turnaround in fortunes that puts the team in the spotlight. The execs went with the beautiful stud, who, if he's got the gumption and the instincts to move to this next level, could re-write the definition of a pro NFL quarterback.

But does he? Can he? Will he?

It says here we'll find out sooner than later.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Who Will Emerge Unscathed from the Kentucky Derby's Organized Chaos?

[Editor's Note: Sports Media America proudly presents this guest column by Los Angeles-based correspondent Steve Brady. Steve's become a savvy horse player in the recent era, and his stylish, catchy prose not only zeros in on the whys and wherefores of winning thoroughbreds but also makes the newbie horse-racing fan feel welcome at the track. So read and learn. But, as always, don't bet the farm. The running of the 132d Kentucky Derby takes place on Saturday, May 6; post time is 6 p.m. EST. NBC television will broadcast the race, with coverage beginning at 5 p.m. EST.]

The Run for the Roses is less than two weeks away, and it's time to "get busy choos'n, or get busy los'n."

I've been a horse-racing fan for only a short time. I first went to Hollywood Park two years ago, to bet on a "sure thing" named Smarty Jones in the 2004 Belmont, the final leg of the Triple Crown. I figured it was free money. The sports media were a virtual Greek chorus proclaiming his certain victory. Ol' Smarty went off at about 1-5, and was surprised by a horse with long odds and a rather undignified name: Birdstone. I learned a brutal lesson that day—blowing not only my own roll, but also a few of the C-notes my friends had put in my care. Since then, I have continued to study the game, and feel compelled to pass along my observations. Just remember: The no-sure-thing rule still applies.

I've been in love with Brother Derek (left, with Alex Solis up, at Hollywood Park) since I picked him to win the Hollywood Futurity in mid-December. He beat Your Tent or Mine by a length in that race, and current Derby hopeful Bob and John by 5. Since then, he's done nothing but impress. Next race out, he beat Merv Griffin's early Derby favorite Stevie Wonderboy by a length and a half in a wire-to-wire victory. (Merv's horse had previously crushed Brother Derek as a two-year-old in the Breeders Cup Juvenile; since then, Derek's filled out and his voice has changed.) Derek dominated the Grade 2 Santa Catalina by a length and three-quarters. He put an exclamation point on it by cruising to an easy win in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.

(Note: Stevie Wonderboy required surgery after the San Rafael, and is now off the Derby trail.)

Derek has been steadily clicking off 100+ Beyer speed figures in his last four races, and, according to future Hall of Fame jockey Solis, he's had plenty of gas left in the tank each time. (Famed Washington Post horse-racing writer Andrew Beyer created his speed figure system to help handicappers evaluate a horse’s performance, taking into consideration the competition as well as the various lengths, surfaces and conditions of the race. Figures of 100 or above are expected from top-level thoroughbreds.) Derek's 1:48 for a mile-and-an-eighth is faster than anything his Derby competitors have done—including Sinister Minister's freakish Blue Grass romp at Keeneland.

Meanwhile, I must acknowledge my own "West Coast bias." It seems justifiable payback for a craven sports media that refuses to acknowledge anything happening outside a 50-mile radius of I-95. I love the thought of a Cal-bred taking the roses back to the land of the Rose Bowl. It's wonderfully impertinent.

Still, I am a handicapper. And it would just kill me to obediently pick the favorite. There are some very scary challengers for this first leg of the Triple Crown, and with its unruly crowd of entrants and its unfamiliar distance, this race is notoriously rough on top seeds. Why should Brother Derek be an exception to the rule that "favorites don't win the Derby"?

The most obvious threat is Lawyer Ron (pictured left, with John McKee up, at Louisiana Downs). Six (count 'em—6!) straight victories against some pretty rugged competition. The way he won the Arkansas Derby is a telling example. It was as if his strategy was to lay off the pace and close it out at the end, but he just got too bored jogging around with the slowpokes, and decided to take off on his own. His early-middle move was so powerful and impressive, that it would make a believer out of anyone. In fact, the horses he beat might be better than we think. He just made 'em look like circus ponies.

Then there's Barbaro (right, Edgar Prado up). Five races; five wins. The last three in graded stakes competition. His trainer, Michael Matz, is a former Olympic show jumper, and he's using an unprecedented "third way" to prep his horse. You might think he's damn near coddling his trainee, but Matz learned through his Olympic experience that the one thing you don't want is a horse that doesn't have any horse left when it counts. Barbaro's first three races were soft, cushiony routes on turf; and he's allowed plenty of vacation time between preps. If he continues to be successful, Matz may alter Triple Crown training methods for years to come. It could be either the Fosbury Flop of thoroughbred racing, or otherwise merely a blip on the radar screen. We will know before the sun goes down on May 6.

The previously mentioned Bob and John is another Cali runner—although he was bred in Kentucky. His figures aren't quite as impressive as some of these others, but he's had plenty of graded stakes experience (landing in the trifecta in his last eight), and you may dismiss a Bob Baffert-trained colt at your own risk. Still, he's got only one plus-100 Beyer fig. Unless he's going to show us something brand new, I don't think he'll be battling at the wire. Like some others here, his best hope is that the early pace is so grueling, that the favorites have nothing left in the final furlong.

Introducing this next colt, I feel a little like a gushing James Lipton from Inside the Actor's Studio: "Sinister Minister, you had already earned a respectable career, garnering praise from many in the industry since you first worked with Mr. Bob Baffert on the West Coast. But then there came [pause]…a little race [fawning smirk]…called [reverent bow]…the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. You may remember that you were ridden in that race by a gentleman by the name of [another fawning smirk]…Garrett Gomez. You bolted out of the gate and at the first call, you were leading by two lengths; by the second, you were ahead a [more smirking] mere 7. You held onto that lead for another quarter, and then decided to extend the lead to 8, until you finally tacked on an additional 4-3/4 lengths when you crossed the finish line. You took the race wire to wire, and gained national attention. It was a performance of astounding depth and passion!! And now, Mr. Sinister Minister, I'd like to ask you a list of questions first posed by Monsieur Bernard Pivot on his series, 'Bouillon de Culture…' "

All kidding aside, Sinister Minister (left, with Garrett Gomez up, at Keeneland) beat a legitimate field by 12-and-a-half lengths. How can a race like that possibly be dismissed? He earned a 116 Beyer! Speed bias, my ass! If he gets a decent outside draw—Who knows? He could do it again. Still and all, it should be pointed out that his time for 1-1/8 mile was four-fifths of a second slower than Brother Derek's time in the Santa Anita. And Keeneland is supposed to be the track for speedsters. This fact has me leaning back towards Derek.

I was always aware of the history of horse-racing in the rolling hills of my home state of Maryland. Pimlico Racetrack in Baltimore is home to the second leg of the Triple Crown, and Johnny Unitas and Earl Morrall were stars for the Baltimore Colts (a pro football team whose name was inspired by the region’s horse industry), before that organization slithered off to Indianapolis in the dead of night in 1984. Jack Germond, the political columnist for the Baltimore Sun, always liked to mention the ponies between debating points on The McLaughlin Group. In recent years, I had heard stories of a death knell to Maryland racing. Evidently, the state legislature is not promoting the game the way they used to, perhaps not approving of the mindset of Maryland's track owners—following the misguided notion that they are in the business of booking comedians and installing one-armed bandits, and not in showcasing absolutely gorgeous animals that run around in circles at breakneck speed.

That all said, I have some minor sentiment for Sweetnorthernsaint. He's a Maryland-bred gelding who's certainly shown speed and versatility. His last four races, he posted plus-100 Beyers, and in the most recent of those—a dominant win in the Illinois Derby—he earned a monster 109 Beyer, second only to the Minister's freak show at Keeneland. The Saint has certainly dominated at Laurel, but his third-place finish at Aqueduct in the Gotham raises a skeptic's eyebrow, particularly when those Benjamins are on the line. Aaaah, hell, I just can't root for him. He's a gelding. He can pursue a long, profitable career for years to come, while the studly Derek and Ron and Barbaro and the Minister retire upstate to replenish the nation's bloodlines for the 2010 Derby.

Those are the major players in my eyes. I'll just grant a speedy analysis to a few of the remainders, zipping past them the way Barbaro and Lawyer Ron will at the 1/4 pole. Any of the rest of these will have a chance only if the speed battle up front is so brutal that the race breaks down and becomes wide open.

If that scenario does happen, my first choice to pick up the pieces is Point Determined (left). He showed tenacity in the Santa Anita Derby against Brother Derek. He lost ground, then gained ground, then lost a little, then gained a little more at the finish. Who knows what might have happened with another 1/8-mile to go. (Point Determined is one of three Baffert-trained horses in the Derby.)

A.P. Warrior was in that same race with Derek and Determined. He also hung in there, but he might not be able to go the extra furlong.

Private Vow is a good, solid horse. He's also spent a lot of time looking at Lawyer Ron's rear end. Yes, yes… perhaps he'll have a different result at the longer distance. We can say that about a lot of the guys in here. If it happens, it'll surprise a lot of people—while a comparatively few others will make a very sweet return on their investment.

The latest word is that Victor Espinoza will be riding Sinister Minister in the Derby, as the aforementioned Gomez has opted to take the mount on Bob and John. It's a very surprising choice, and certainly raises questions about my predictions. Still, Espinoza's a great rider, and for whomever takes the mount, the game plan won't be hard to remember: Break clean, take an early lead, and see how fast and far the Minister can go.

I highly recommend this Derby preview site: It's amazingly informative. Look all the way over to the upper right side. Click "Enlarge Video" and you'll see a whole list of key Derby prep races. You can scroll down and watch any of them. It's streaming, so you don't have to download anything.

If you watch the California Derby on March 11, I think you'll see that Sinister Minister (#1) had a very unusual race, which can be excused. He ran blistering quarters, and then he totally spazzed out at the top of the stretch. He bumped into the rail a couple of times for no apparent reason (perhaps he got spooked by shadows on the ground; perhaps he had trouble changing leads???), to the point where he practically stopped, allowing Cause to Believe to pass him in the stretch. Just rewind the part right after he makes the turn. Cause to Believe did not win that race, Sinister Minister handed it to him.

Then check out Minister's ride in the Blue Grass Stakes on April 15. A total longshot, he just blows away the field. I guess it's possible that the Blue Grass was a fluke and that he has no chance in the Derby, but I think he just had something go wacky in the California.

Anything can happen on May 6. Brother Derek has never faced a crowd anywhere near this big, and he could easily get intimidated. The only race he ever ran with more than 10 horses, he came in 4th. Still, he's matured since then, and going with the raw numbers, I don't see a way around him. Nevertheless, those Minister odds could be tempting. One early line suggested they would be around 20-1. (Right now, Brother Derek’s are projected at 4-1.)

With 20 horses in the Derby field—and given Churchill Downs' improvised gate set-up—if either of those two gets a post between 13 and 16, that's who I'm going with. I may even go with the Derek/Minister "speedball" boxed exacta.

Predicted Finish:

1. Brother Derek
2. Sinister Minister
3. Barbaro

Steve Brady is a fresh new voice in the horse-racing industry. He can be reached at

Monday, April 24, 2006

Hernandez' Remarks Challenge Political Correctness, But Has He Got a Point?

Okay, time for honesty. Let's have a show of male hands. How many of you out there think it's cool that a woman was hanging out in the San Diego Padres dugout during Saturday's game against the New York Mets?

Mets broadcaster Keith Hernandez was reprimanded for speaking his mind about 33-year-old massage therapist Kelly Calabrese, who is apparently employed full-time by the Padres. After spotting Calabrese high-fiving the Padres' Mike Piazza in the dugout, Hernandez said, "I won't say that women belong in the kitchen, but they don't belong in the dugout."

Typically, everyone went wild. Calabrese was "shocked." Hernandez' media-outlet employers made him apologize the next day for his "inappropriate" remarks. Padres CEO Sandy Alderson issued a statement criticizing Hernandez and vouching for Calabrese's good work. Then a cadre of New Age ESPN Radio jockeys set out to castigate Hernandez' "neanderthal" views.

For once, y'all, let's get past the PC verbiage and look at this episode with perspective and an eye toward the truth.

Next show of hands: How many of you guys out there want to see a time when women are playing major-league baseball, competing fully and regularly against men?

Well, I for one don't ever want to see that. Sorry, call me unenlightened. Whatever. I like baseball and I like men playing against men in the major leagues. Major league baseball is a male domain, and the idea of women in the dugout high-fiving Mike Piazza is just...well, it's wrong. Ironically, it's a little queer, too.

Yet again the feminization of our society rears its ugly bulbous head. I have no doubt that Ms. Calabrese gives excellent massages. Hurray for her. That's not what Hernandez (pictured left, onfield as the Mets' former All-Star first-baseman) is reacting to. Her presence in the dugout is yet another signal of the creeping societal sludge of political correctness, which basically states that women are allowed everywhere, whether men like it or not, and that men furthermore are bound to keep silent even if they have an urge to express an opinion.

Women masseuses in the dugout? Next the head trainer will be a woman. Then the third-base coach. Then the manager. Meanwhile, the minor leagues will be forced legally to put women on the field. Don't doubt that any of this can't happen. In the past 40 years, our society has seen the unmitigated ascendance of women in all social and employment realms. Legislation has been enacted to protect—and also to encourage—their insinuation into once-male-dominated domains. Have you watched television lately? Aside from ESPN, with its mostly (but certainly not all) male talking heads, women are everywhere in places of media prominence. On any given night, a typical local network affiliate will have an all-female team handling anchor, weather and sports duties. What are the men who used to have those jobs doing now? Working at day-care centers?

Is it any wonder the sociologists and pop-psych book authors wonder about the "problem" of males in our society? Men fill our prisons. They are being educated at a slower rate than women, when they are being educated at all. Meanwhile, many of them work in traditionally blue-collar industries that are dying on the economic vine. Female enrollment in American colleges surpasses male enrollment at every level. At many graduate schools, women comprise more than 50% of incoming law and medical classes. But, oh, by the way, it's politically incorrect if you dare to raise your voice even a little in support of male pride.

Hernandez, in a moment of pure and (God love him) thoughtless honesty, was only striking a blow for a bigger cause: Men's right to have their games and to play them in the sanctity of blessed maleness. The dugout is only an extension of the locker room, which is where men change their clothes, shower, scratch, fart, belch, and otherwise act like guys. Is the right to act like a guy in danger of being legislated out too?

Listen, it's not men's fault that the games they play are cool and executed at the highest physical level, and that women want to intrude. There's been such a fuss over Title IX funding for so many years, and women got their way with that. Their opportunities to play sports have increased tremendously, and more than ever women are making livings throughout the sports world. The encroachment of women into American sports is unprecedented. And, no, we shouldn't be surprised that the San Diego Padres have a female massage therapist working out the kinks of a third-baseman's strained hammy.

Does anyone really think that Keith Hernandez, a guy who's been around the block a few times, was making some kind of statement about where women belong in society? I think not. My guess is that Keith has a handle on the big picture. Which is, that men, just like women, are entitled to their own competitive worlds, their own oneness of gender, their own privacy, their own camaraderie, their own right to express themselves at a unique personal level, and, most of all, to behave freely as men. The major league baseball dugout has always been a place where these things have been allowed to happen. Kelly Calabrese's presence raises a potential red flag signaling the end of all that, and yes, men have a right to be concerned.

There isn't a damn thing wrong with Hernandez speaking his mind. It's a free country, isn't it? He''ll have to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous PC fortune, of course, and hell, I don't even care that he had to issue a PC-inspired statement to cover his ass.

The important thing is that, intentionally or not, Hernandez' words give voice to the serious ongoing issue of the inexorable decline of male power in U.S. society.

Years ago, the British rock band Roxy Music's Bryan Ferry wrote a song called "Amazona." It'll be here soon enough if we don't watch out.

Viva la difference! And keep the ladies out of the dugout.