Wednesday, April 25, 2007

DRAFT SPECIAL Titans Brass Should Take a Lesson from the Past: Defense First

The first life-affirming thrill I ever had as a football fan was in 1972, when my hometown Washington Redskins made it to the Super Bowl.

It was the second year in George Allen’s tenure as Redskins head coach. Allen (left) came to the Redskins after a successful run as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. The Redskins hadn’t been to the playoffs in about 30 years until 1971, Allen’s first year in Washington, when—having announced that "The Future Is Now"—he led the Skins to a 9-4-1 record and the postseason, where they lost a tough first-round game to John Brodie’s 49ers.

In the years prior to that, the Redskins always had a thrilling offense, led by future Hall of Famers Sonny Jurgensen, Charley Taylor and Bobby Mitchell. The Skins could score, and they were often prolific and exciting as hell—once, in 1966, they beat the New York Giants 72-41—but their inability to stop their opponents always held them back.

Then Allen came, preaching defense. He added veteran players, often ex-Rams and ex-Bears–from where he’d coached before—to the roster, and squeezed gutty performances out of a defensive unit that came to embody the team’s new nickname: the “Over the Hill Gang.” Meanwhile, the solid offense—still studded with All-Pros—did its thing. The Redskins defeated the then-World Champions, the Dallas Cowboys, 26-3 in the NFC title game in a dominating performance that sent long-suffering Redskins fans into ecstasy.

The Skins went on to lose Super Bowl VII to the Miami Dolphins—the old guys were spent, and league MVP, Redskins running back Larry Brown, was hurting after season-long punishment—but Allen’s point had been made: You can’t get anywhere without a defense. His theory held that, even if you had a mediocre offense, a great defense—with continual focus on shutting down the running game and forcing turnovers—would keep you in every game.

It would be interesting to see how Allen, who died in late 1990, would apply his genius in the modern age of fleet, big-boned wide receivers and more sophisticated passing offenses. But I’m not so sure that his philosophy doesn’t still hold water. It certainly seems to make sense for those mediocre teams that are trying to get over the hump just to make it to a wild-card game: Play stout defense for 60 minutes, never be out of it, and give your offense a chance to make a winning score.

Which brings us to the upcoming NFL draft and the plight of the Tennessee Titans. At 8-8, they surprised a lot of people in 2006. But when they won, it wasn’t because they blew away their opponents statistically. They made some big plays on offense, thanks to rookie QB Vince Young, and some big plays on defense, thanks to suspended bad boy Pacman Jones. The Titans made it to .500 last year on grit and some key clutch performances. Now, with free-agency defections—Travis Henry, Drew Bennett, Bobby Wade—there are huge holes at wide receiver and at running back. There’s been some buzz that new GM Mike Reinfeldt (above) will be looking over the ripe crop of receivers available this year. It’d be nice to snag someone big and fast to be a target for Young’s passes. And if any running back with potential becomes available at some point—the Titans have 10 picks—the team would probably find him tempting.

But wait. Are we trying to light up the scoreboard here or win games?

And, no matter how good your offense, how can you win games when, as the Titans did in 2006, you rank last in the NFL in cumulative defense? Here are the ugly numbers, with the team’s league rank in parentheses:

Yards Yielded Total: 5,915 (32)

Yards Yielded Per Game: 369.7 (32)

Rushing Yards Yielded: 2,313 (30)

Rushing Yards Yielded Per Game: 144.6 (30)

Passing Yards Yielded: 3,602 (28)

Passing Yards Yielded Per Game: 225.1 (28)

Points Yielded: 400 (31)

Points Yielded Per Game: 25.0 (31)

The Titans need help, all right—on defense. Desperately. They need a linebacker to go with Keith Bulluck and David Thornton. They need a cornerback to replace Jones—which wasn't necessarily the plan when they signed Indy's Nick Harper through free agency— and every other bit of additional help possible to boost the secondary's depth. They also need help on the defensive line, like a quick mobile pass rusher and a run-stuffer. Or a hybrid-type who can do both, playing up or down.

Adding high draft picks to the current offense will help on that side of the ball, but doing that and not tending to the critical defensive needs only results in a season filled with higher-scoring losses.

Dear Mike Reinfeldt: Build a killer defense.

With Young at QB, the Titans should find some ways to score points. The offensive line didn’t look too bad last year (though center Kevin Mawae is now 36, and grabbing a potential replacement looks like a logical priority). Otherwise, look for your offensive players in the later rounds.

The pressure is going to be on for the Titans to draft a runner like Marshawn Lynch (California), who could be the second runner taken after highly sought Adrian Peterson. Or wide receivers like Ted Ginn Jr. (Ohio State) or LSU’s Dwayne Bowe might be available.

But by the time #19 rolls around, the following players will probably also still be available: Lawrence Timmons, LB, Florida State; Aaron Ross, CB, Texas; Chris Houston, CB, Arkansas; and Anthony Spencer, LB/DE, Purdue. And if the Titans get lucky, and things have shifted in the draft slots above them, they could get a shot at defenders like Darrelle Revis, CB, Pittsburgh; Justin Harrell, DT, Tennessee; Reggie Nelson, S, Florida; or Alan Branch, DT, Michigan. Any of these guys would fill a need and have a chance to start right away.

If the Titans are doing their homework, there's no reason why they can't roll the dice on offensive talent in the later rounds, and spend at least their earliest three picks on defense.

Defense inspires fear. Defense competes. Defense wins football games.

The offense will come with Young eventually. But you can't even begin to sail the commander's boat when there are big leaks in the bottom.

Go D, Mike. Go D.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy...

A fella at work told me about it. It was on the radio on my way home. The evening TV news was all over it (immediately before, I'd seen a commercial for Lysol that used the Beatles' "Hello, Goodbye" as its jingle). I wasn't surprised, but certainly I was dismayed.

So pick your poison. It's been a newsy week. Now I'll tell you what I think.

I always thought Don Imus (left) was a weirdo. The kind of media weirdo about whom I couldn't care less. It's been ages since I saw him on TV. I guess he's been around forever, but I found his gab impenetrable. He's an oddball, and I don't give a hoot. He's sort of a Howard Stern in a cowboy hat. He likes to say "shocking' things, sort of like radio jocks used to do in the '80s when they were first trying to stir up the local airwaves. Every big town had one. So the fact that Imus said "provocative" things about the Rutgers University ladies basketball team is no surprise. But I don't know why it's any different as a display of poor taste than what Stern did (or does; I haven't listened to Stern in ages; I outgrew him fast—I hope you did too).

Anyway: Imus. (Sigh.) Now another racial incident besets us all. I'm sure the Rutgers gals are great. But let's put this in perspective. Imus is an attention-hungry radio jock who's made his living being "edgy." That's his thing. He doesn't ever necessarily believe what he says. He just says stuff to be outrageous. Or possibly to get a laugh. Hence, Rutgers female basketball players become "skanky ho's," or whatever the heck he said. Instant cause celebre. And an opportunity for African American posturing and outrage.

I'm not saying Imus shouldn't have been canned. Frankly, that should have happened years ago on the grounds that he's so unpleasant to listen to. But I almost wonder if it wouldn't have been better to ignore him. To exercise some good taste. To pretend that he doesn't even exist.

Let's face it, Don Imus does not represent anyone. He was trying to reference the argot of black rappers and 'hood culture, along the way to making a bad joke. He might've called the Notre Dame basketball team a bunch of lazy drunken Irishmen. But, of course, that wouldn't have gotten any attention. It certainly wouldn't have gotten him fired. So media Rule #1 is still in place: You can't go after Jews or blacks, even in the pursuit of satire, without a firestorm ensuing. You'll probably get fired. I guess I'm here to say that the only reason this is a big deal is because we have allowed it to become one.

I'll look on the brightest side of the affair: Maybe Imus will go away. But for the record, I wasn't outraged, I didn't take what he said seriously, and I think the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot.

Now that the Duke University men's lacrosse team has been exonerated from the big rape charge, we once again are forced to reflect on our country's race issues. But maybe moreso we should re-focus on the importance of the law, of the old shibboleth that a man (or a lacrosse player) is innocent until proven guilty. Anyone who read about that case from the get-go had to surmise that something was fishy. At the least, it demanded that patience precede liberal outrage.

Maybe what we learned ultimately was a harder lesson: that the state of male-female relations is even worse than that of black-white relations. It's 2007, and guys are still hiring strippers. That they were white guys hiring black strippers down in Durham certainly does add a Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings cast to the incident. It's nothing to be proud of; apparently, it's what guys do. But that doesn't get the prosecutor, Mike Nifong, off the hook, for his knee-jerk, lowest-common-denominator approach to things. Once again, the pressure to exercise liberal outrage superseded a more reasonable, wait-and-see attitude, which you'd think an officer of the law would ascribe to.

How sad: The Dukies lose their season, reputations are tarnished, a lot of misleading racial posturing holds sway for months and months, and, yet again, the law is the loser.

Which brings us to Adam ("Pacman") Jones, who is—Was? Is?—one of the most physically gifted football players in the National Football League. He was erratic his rookie year, in 2005. He looked a little spaced out on-field. Then last year, as the Tennessee Titans improved markedly, and were suddenly this exciting team with huge upside young talent, Pacman looked at least like Batman to Vince Young's Superman. Pacman Jones is a great punt returner; also a cornerback who has rapidly learned how to play well one of the toughest positions on the football field. I'm not sure he does any of that with his brains. But he's got what great athletes usually have: instinct, and a great motor.

Now, thanks to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Pacman sits for the 2007 season. At the very least for 10 games. Don't bother coming back, Pac. By Game 11, the Titans might suck pretty bad. They still don't have a decent wide receiver to catch Young's passes. And the running game is a big question mark. Why risk injury to help a 4-6 team become 6-10?

I guess I'm in the minority. It's well documented at Sports Media America that I heartily concur that Pacman is a screw-up. I don't know what's in that guy's head. He's immature. Emotionally unsophisticated. Strange. Speaks an alien language to most of us. And his friends—or whatever—are boyz from the 'hood who express themselves by way of all that is glorified in rap and hip-hop: drugs, guns, strip clubs, posses, ho's, etc.

Pacman Jones is a punk. With the attitude of a thug. And based on the evidence we have, he's a complete pain in the ass to his employers on the PR front. Yet he hasn't been convicted of anything yet. Which must raise some questions in the legal arena.

For example, say you—yeah, I'm talking to you—held a very nice job in whatever field. You were tremendous at what you did, and everyone appreciated your work. Is who you hang out with away from the office anybody's business but your own? Is what you do, even the marginally legal, anybody's business but your own? Now, let's say you were at a public event and some weird stuff went down, and a person was shot. If you did not pull the trigger, what are you responsible for in such a situation? If it was you involved in a public scrape, one not splashed across the front page of a newspaper or leading the charge at Yahoo news, would you be suspended from your job, effective immediately, lose all your pay, without any due process?

I worked in a bakery once. There were a few guys there that hung out at strip clubs. They'd never have lost their jobs over that. I mean, you can't lose your job over that, can you? Is Pacman the first athlete to go to a strip club? We know he's not the first to consort with druggies. Or carry a gun.

He's being banned from play due to "violations of the league's personal conduct policy." Hmmm... Why is it in Hollywood, you can be an actor and be involved with all sorts of marginal and/or unsavory stuff, yet you can still get a job acting? I mean, no one has to hire you, but you can still work if someone will let you. If you're Lindsay Lohan, they call it buzz. If you're Pacman, they call it a "conduct violation."

Understand: I'm not excusing the guy. But if he's not been convicted of anything, then he's in violation of...what? Does the NFL policy delineate the specific behavioral transgressions whereby you lose your job? How many merit badges shy of being a Boy Scout do you have to be to be considered outside the conduct policy?

If I were Pacman, I'd lawyer up. I'd attempt to get this all clarified to the max through legal channels, before walking away from the game and losing $1.2 million in salary. Apparently his own union backed the commish's decision. So, thankfully, I guess we can't call this a racial issue. But it's a pretty slippery slope when the union that represents Jones—and presumably takes his dues money—doesn't stick up for him. The point isn't that he necessarily deserves protection, it's that as a union member he must be entitled to protection. At the very least, the union should endorse his ability to seek independent legal recourse to the penalty imposed on him. Within the law, Pacman is still an innocent man. Is it fair that his livelihood be taken away from him before any legal judgments have been rendered against his actions?

I see this move as Goodell's power play. He probably thinks he's Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, taking down the Chicago Black Sox in 1919. Sorry, Rog, it's not the same thing.

I don't believe in perfection. People screw up. Pacman Jones is an immature young man who makes bad choices. But, as of this writing—and as of the Goodell decision—he's still innocent in the eyes of the law. If the season begins and ends with Pacman remaining unscathed legally, then what kind of precedent has been set, and what kind of power has the National Football League Players Association ceded to the commissioner?

The slippery slopes are the ones that move you downhill fast; it's often almost nigh impossible to find your way back up them. I guess in the age of Bush-like fiat, everybody's got to be a saint. Or else Homeland Security comes after you. Goodell didn't have to do what he did. Not now. He did it to show that he was the new big kid on the block. What it was not was a blow for individual rights. And someday, NFLPA might regret their role in the whole thing.

For the short term, it certainly shifts the Titans' strategy in the upcoming NFL draft. Now they need a cornerback in addition to everything else. Maybe they'll find one who runs a 4.3 40—and has a halo around his head.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Nothing Minor About Sounds' Media Day: 2007 Squad Debuts for Reporters and Photogs

Under the watchful eye of Nashville Sounds media relations director Doug Scopel, the 2007 version of the Milwaukee Brewers' Triple A minor league affiliate took the field at Greer Stadium yesterday, to pose for pictures and submit to interviews with representatives from local newspaper, television and online outlets. [Above: Tennessean staff photographer Dipti Vaidya snaps a pic of new Sounds second baseman Callix Crabbe.]

What seemed at first to be a cool day turned into near perfection, with the sun shining brightly and the day actually warm enough for a ballgame. Photographers and reporters were in place at 3 p.m., and shortly thereafter the Sounds, led by third-year manager Frank Kremblas (left), trundled out of the clubhouse in spanking clean white new uniforms. Hopes might be high for this version of the Sounds, but the team's undergone a lot of changes since last year's squad finished 76-68 and advanced to the American Conference finals of the Pacific Coast League playoffs. The 2005 Sounds won the PCL championship.

In the past two years, the Sounds have been led by some hot young talent, including Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder, and Tony Gwynn Jr., all of whom were snapped up quickly by the parent Brewers, who now look to be a team on the rise in the National League's Central Division. The 2007 Sounds return a few stalwarts from last year's team—including catcher Mike Rivera, shortstop Chris Barnwell and versatile IF-OF-C Vinny Rottino—but in many ways this is a new mini-Brew Crew, as compared to the 2006 Opening Day roster.

Among the fresh faces reporting from Milwaukee's Huntsville (Ala.) AA club are Crabbe and promising right-handed pitcher Tim Dillard. There are also the usual refugees from other major league farm systems looking for new beginnings—e.g., former Rockies catcher J.D. Closser, former A's, Red Sox and Reds farmhand Andy Abad, and local Nashville boy R. A. Dickey, formerly of the Texas Rangers. OF-1B Abad, 34, has always hit well in the high minors, and the Sounds will need his bat. Dickey, 32—pictured, right, interviewed by WTVF-NewsChannel5's Kami Carmann—was a former star at the University of Tennessee before launching his pro career in 1997. Unlike his Sounds teammates who've only had the proverbial "cup of coffee" in the bigs, Dickey logged serious roster time with Texas in 2003-2004 and has pitched in the majors for parts of five seasons. His career record is 16-19, and his 5.72 ERA pretty much tells the story of his frustrations in staying in "The Show." Nashville could be the last stop in Dickey's somewhat disappointing career, or it could be his chance to show the parent Brewers' front office that he can help them make a run at a division title.

Three new Sounds—IF-OF Jose Macias, IF-OF Joe Dillon and P Chris Oxspring—spent 2006 playing baseball in Japan. Macias, who is 35, has played 659 major league ballgames with Detroit, Montreal and Chicago, and has a .256 career batting average. He's a versatile guy, and he should help the Sounds immediately in the outfield. Alas, he only hit .229 with Hokkaido Nippon last year, after posting some respectable numbers with the Cubs in 2004-2005.

All minor league clubs have their share of players for whom time is running out on a big league career. Seven of the 2007 Sounds are 30 or older, and Triple A is not where you want to be at that age. Getting jostled around from minor league affiliate to minor league affiliate is also usually not an encouraging sign for any guy trying to impress major league front offices. Still, Triple A is the place to reclaim the dream. Five of the Sounds—Rottino, OF Drew Anderson, and pitchers Dennis Sarfate, Zach Jackson and Jose Capellan are members of the Brewers' 40-man roster, which means the parent club has a vested interest in their solid production, with an eye toward a possible 2007 call-up. None of the five is older than 26.

But what Triple A ball is really for is seeing if hot young prospects are continuing their development and getting ready to position themselves for major-league stardom. Two Sounds fit specifically into this category: 3B Ryan Braun (left) and P Yovani Gallardo. Braun, 23, was the Brewers' first-round selection in the June 2005 draft. He's hit well all through the lower minors in parts of two seasons, and in 59 games with Huntsville in 2006, he batted .303, with 15 HRs and 40 RBIs. Braun is error-prone, however, and they don't have the DH rule in the National League. Working on his defense is a priority in Nashville. Gallardo, only 21, has also excelled in his brief minor league stints. His IP/H ratio is terrific and in 303 innings he's recorded 329 strikeouts. His control can be sharpened, but if he gets off to a hot start, don't be surprised if Milwaukee comes calling.

Media Day took place at just about the same time Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell was releasing an official notice of default to the Sounds, for their failure to sufficiently develop the downtown Thermal Plant property as per their original plans for building a new stadium. The Sounds' memorandum of understanding (MOU) expires on April 15, and the Metro Council voted 38-0 on Tuesday, April 3, to reject extending this deadline to October. Reporters peppered Scopel with questions about this issue, but the media director deflected the inquiries deftly, insisting that Media Day was for the players only, and that stadium questions had to be addressed at another time by general manager Glenn Yaeger.

For what it's worth—and for those who appreciate its simple, throwback charm—Greer Stadium looks to be in great shape, ready for the April 5 season opener, which kicks off at 7 p.m. against the New Orleans Zephyrs, the New York Mets' Triple A affiliate. Greer remains a quaint and atmospheric place to play and watch baseball, with its distinctive guitar-shaped scoreboard. The stadium has expanded its food offerings for 2007, and fans can expect the usual promotional dates, with fireworks, live music, and games and activities focusing on the kids.

This year's Nashville Sounds could struggle, but the younger players bear close watching. If the older vets can recapture some of the magic that earned them their occasional major league stripes—and if the Brewers are doing so well that they can leave their Music City affiliate alone for a while to develop some chemistry—there's no reason why 2007 can't have its own brand of excitement. Triple A ball may not be the big leagues, but it's as close as it gets, and at eminently affordable prices. Free parking is still an amazingly wonderful and rare thing.

Go Sounds!