Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ramsey the Radio Shill: Cashing in for Christ on Sports Talk Radio

Nashville sports radio is where Nashville sports radio talent make money—and not necessarily talking about sports. No, the real ultimate bonanza, once you can break into the local radio game, is doing voiceovers for commercials. George Plaster, Mike Keith, Frank Wycheck, Jeff Diamond—the list goes on. Once they are voices on the radio, they convert their insider position into additional bucks by shilling for anything that comes down the pike. It’s a typical gambit for radio “personalities.” Heck, Dan Patrick, former ESPN star radio performer, used to do national spots on his program, but then he also started doing voiceovers for the commercials for local businesses. Let’s see, how many markets was Dan in? Multiply that times the thousands local companies were paying him and you’ve probably got a serious chunk o’ change. No wonder Dan could recently “retire” from the sports radio game.

But there’s another guy who’s all over the Nashville sports radio landscape doing commercials. He’s incessant. He’s everywhere. You can’t turn your dial from 104.5 FM to 106.7 FM to 560 AM without hearing the obnoxious intonations of that financial force of nature, Dave Ramsey.

Ramsey, the holier-than-thou radio financial advisor to regional millions, subject of a ”60 Minutes” segment not that long ago, has become radio shill par excellence. Also not too long ago, Nashville Scene did a cover story on Ramsey. It wasn’t an incisive piece, exactly, rather more like a positive catch-up profile on his busy life and his continued success berating and cajoling the mass of woebegone radio listeners who don’t know how to handle their money very well. Ramsey, making no bones about his “Christian” leanings—born again through the troubled waters of his own past financial problems—is the high priest of Financial Peace University, a program of money-management seminars, which, as epitomized by the name itself, sells it all: money (“financial”), religion (“peace”), and the idea of credentialed legitimacy (“university”).

So Ramsey’s a big success in his own right. Which makes his constant appearance on sports talk radio commercials really disturbing. We understand that it’s all about striking when the iron is hot in show biz. Would that we all had even a fraction of such opportunities. But Ramsey’s cash-in ethos comes off really weird, especially for a guy who poses as this Christian-based, benevolent but also hard-assed taskmaster and guru for the financially challenged.

One of Ramsey’s on-air clients is Pilkinton Eye Surgery, which he promotes by claiming that his own wife availed herself of their services. (Always exploit the idea of family, if you can.) He also shills for an insurance company that promises that, when you call them, you won’t be talking to—as Dave says with particular venom—“some kid in a cubicle 500 miles away,” which is a rather nasty reverse-ageist characterization for a spokesperson who claims to be a big Christian. Ramsey also promotes a realtor named Terry DeSelms, a situation that seems particularly interesting given that Ramsey’s made his fortune advising regular folks on how to best spend and save their money. Anyone with a little experience in real estate knows that, in this day and age, one should do all that is possible to avoid the services of a realtor. Doing so can save thousands when it comes to closing time, and you’d think ol’ Dave would be all for that. He’s not, apparently, when it comes to his pal Terry DeSelms.

But the real problem comes when we sports radio listeners have to hear Ramsey’s voice in salesman mode, which has to be one of the most unnerving aural experiences in the world. He grates and cackles his way through his ad copy with unctuous insistence and at maximum volume, and I’m not sure if it’s the copy or the Ramsey delivery that most convinces me not to patronize the clients.

It’s terrible radio, and knowing what we know about the Christian Ramsey, it also smacks a bit of hypocrisy, him being so verbally cruel to young people in cubicles and essentially endorsing realtor fees. (Though what he’s doing is certainly in tune with getting one’s financial house in order. Dave’s house, that is.)

Like a modern-day Elmer Gantry, Ramsey alights his podium of financial righteousness with absolute confidence and cashes in on regular folks’ weaknesses. That’s okay. This is America, and if you can make a buck, then so be it.

But why must he take all the fun out of listening to the radio?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Burns’ “War” Embattled: Hispanic Outcry, Stylistic Sameness Dull Its Documentary Luster



Warning: Non-Sports Content

I’ve been checking out segments of the new Ken Burns documentary film The War on PBS. Guess what? It kinda sucks.

Let me preface my remarks by saying that, unlike the Hispanic Americans who raised a stink about the film, I do not think Burns is a racist. No, the guy whose three previous major PBS features—The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz—basically rubbed the white man’s face in his transgressions against the black man is no racist. If anything, he’s a guilt-mongerer, so intent is Burns in playing the race card to his own political and financial advantage. How best to get PBS execs to buy in to your movie plans? Simply remind us—over and over and over and over—about how vile white people in America have been to minorities in the bygone past.

Burns is at it again in The War. As dolorous fiddles play in the background, he wastes little time in diving into the internment of Asian Americans. Still photos of sad-eyed Asians, mixed with interview footage of survivors of that experience, serve as a new reminder: We white Americans were lousy to yellow-skinned people, too.

Later, in a segment about homefront doings in the South, Burns plays the race card again, this time about blacks and their status as (supposed) second-class cititzens, replete with ominous piano chords and more photos of lost-looking African Americans.

I don’t get it. I thought this was supposed to be about World War II. You’d certainly never know it based on Burns’ limp coverage of the Battle of Midway. If you want to get a real sense of that critical ocean contest between the Japanese and American navies, you can’t do much better than Hollywood’s Midway (1976). Don’t let the all-star cast—Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Robert Mitchum—fool you: the factual recounting of the battle and the strategies involved is well-rendered. The movie Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) also outdoes Burns on the bombing of Pearl Harbor. As do many war studies previously broadcast on, for example, The History Channel or other television outlets. If it’s the events and personalities of war you want, documentarians hellbent on war have done it better. I haven’t caught Burns’ take on D-Day yet, but you can bet it will not surpass Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which in effect created its own original, documentarylike footage.

Prior to The War’s grand unveiling this week on PBS, there was an event commemorating its completion which was broadcast on C-SPAN. On the dais was Kenny, surrounded mostly by females, including his co-producer Lynn Novick and the major PBS execs who helped support his filmmaking efforts. They were all women too. Little bowl-haircut Kenny stepped up to deliver a sober, serious-minded tribute to his distaff patrons. And now that I’ve seen parts of The War, I can aver pretty confidently that the film’s failure has a lot to do with the feminization of culture, especially tax- and charity-funded culture.

Don’t show a manly war, by golly, Ken. No, that would “offend” the ladies. So what we get instead is a feature that neither portrays war and its evil origins and brutal (read: testosterone) resolution nor dares to easily accept that Americans were united in the cause even in spite of some of the unfortunate by-products of its reality. Yes, it’s sad that Asian Americans were interned; yet the wartime exigencies of security became actionable and that is what happens during war sometimes. Burns might claim that this is simply what he has portrayed, but as we all know, it often isn’t what you say but how you say it that counts.

Now that Burns is not just a historian (of sorts) anymore—and is actually a history re-creator—you can in part understand why the Hispanic Americans were apprehensive that their contribution to the war effort might not be well enough represented in his work. For generations to come, the Burns documentaries will be seen as gospel, immune from any apparent criticism as they play over and over on public television for maybe eons. Just as future generations will be reminded how awful white people were to Africans and Asians, so too would no one be reminded that Hispanics actually participated with other Americans in the Second World War. That's how pervasive Burns’ spin on history has come to be regarded as “truth.”

Burns claimed initially that this was no oversight—only that in choosing to tell his story in his way, the issue of the breadth of Hispanic American war service never came up, and was not relevant to his greater goal and vision. Personally, I actually believe this could be the case. Of course, Burns couldn’t show white people being cruel to, or dismissive of, Hispanic Americans—not like he could for blacks or Asians—so you can make up your own mind whether you think it was an innocent oversight or not. The incident is certainly rich with irony, though.

Accordingly, Burns agreed to make some changes in the film, interpolating some footage pertinent to the Hispanic issue. I caught a fairly lengthy segment about a half-Hispanic survivor of the conflict, who told tales of his Marine unit. To be honest, it was boring—and his ethnicity had nothing to do with that. And come to think of it, it kind of looked just thrown in.

As for what else I’ve seen of the The War: the footage of soldiers in and out of battle looks moldy and often irrelevant and clearly not always are the images on screen truly related to the words of the typically pious voiceover of narrator Keith David. It is not a cohesive story of war being told; the through lines describing strategies and battles and the progress of the conflict are disjointed, so intent is Burns on staying off the “good stuff”—i.e., what war buffs like—and instead concentrating on the “individual” or “societal” experience.

The crying fiddles, the folkish recital-style piano, the incessant blare of Benny Goodman’s clarinet and Tommy Dorsey’s big band music, Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas—all sound overused and stale and, worst of all, the easy hallmarks of Burns’ other projects. The angled camera moving up and over archival photographs has become a tired idea, so much a cliche now that iPhoto programs actually give the home moviemaker access to it: the so called “Ken Burns effect.”

In other words, Burns has become a parody of himself, and his latest effort provides confirming evidence.

Why did he do a documentary on World War II? Even after both the 50th and 60th anniversaries of D-Day were long gone and celebrated with great publicity? Even after Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” shtick had filtered its way thoroughly through the popular American consciousness? Even after Saving Private Ryan had already captured the historical hearts and imaginations of millions?

I’m sure Kenny will have the articulate answer. The main fiddle theme from The Civil War will swell in the background. The camera will begin in the southeast corner of a black-and-white photo of his earnest, beatific face, eventually panning up northwesterly to center his serious visage. Then the voice of Keith David, or maybe even Tom Hanks, will say: “Because I can—Ken Burns, 2007.”

The Tuesday Morning Quarterback: NFL Week #3 Winners and Losers... w/ Media Notes

The beat goes on. Five teams remain undefeated: New England, Indy, Pittsburgh, Dallas and—surprise!—Green Bay. Five remain winless: Atlanta, Buffalo, Miami, St. Louis and New Orleans.

Titans 34, Saints 14—Titans (2-1) do a lot of little things well enough, but also intercept Drew Brees 4 times. Saints—considered Super Bowl contenders by many preseason prognosticators (ahem...)—are in trouble with 0-3 start. Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister combine to rush for 20 yards on 11 carrries. Both teams head into bye week facing in opposite directions.

Giants 24, Redskins 17—Skins (2-1) blow 17-3 halftime lead in one of the grossest displays of lack of character you’ll ever see. And on their home field no less. They even had a first-and-goal with a minute to play and couldn’t punch in a tying TD. Giants (1-2) plucky in making comeback. Plucky...and lucky.

Eagles 56, Lions 21—The 2-1 Lions’ passing offense is okay, but that defense needs help if they’re going to be a force in the NFC North. QB Donovan McNabb flawless for Philly (1-2), with 21-26, 381 yards, 4 TDs. RB Brian Westbrook and WR Kevin Curtis have huge days also. Eagles’ D records 8 sacks.

Cowboys 34, Bears 10—Cowboys (3-0) look excellent. But never mind the balanced and potent offense; the D recorded three sacks and grabbed three INTs. Bears’ D tried, but team’s sputtering offense kept turning it right back to Romo, Owens & Co. Even Brian Urlacher is human, you know. Bears now 1-2, and QB Rex Grossman is...well...gross, man. His on-the-job training program probably shouldn’t continue. Brian Griese is a proven productive NFL quarterback. Here’s the proof. He’s only 32, and he deserves a chance.

Colts 30, Texans 24—Peyton & Co. outlast gritty Texans (2-1). Once again, Colts’ D rises up in final moments to shut down an opponent’s last-ditch effort. Colts (3-0) balanced in all phases of game. Texans play without Ahman Green, Ron Dayne and Andre Johnson, but still put up a fight behind QB Matt Schaub.

Patriots 38, Bills 7—Pats (3-0) score 38 points for the third consecutive game. Brady, Moss and Maroney all stellar. A juggernaut in the making. Bills are now 0-3, and lost starting QB J. P. Losman to injury, replaced by rookie QB Trent Edwards. Bills rookie LB Paul Posluszny breaks left forearm. Bills’ season in shambles.

Bucs 24, Rams 3—Jeff Garcia once again leads the 2-1 Bucs to victory, with efficient, errorless passing and inspiring leadership. Cadillac Williams, Earnest Graham and Michael Pittman combine for 177 yards on the ground. Meanwhile, while the 0-3 Rams get their running game untracked (Steve Jackson: 115 yards), QB Marc Bulger throws 3 INTs. Rams’ playoff hopes already in jeopardy, and schedule just gets tougher.

Steelers 37, 49ers 16—Solid defense, quietly efficient quarterbacking by Ben Roethlisberger, and another fine running performance by Willie Parker vault the Steelers to 3-0 and status as a serious force in the AFC. Steelers have outscored opponents 97-26. Niners (2-1) keep it close into the second half, then Steelers wear ‘em down.

Packers 31, Chargers 24—Packers, now 3-0, still have no running game, but Brett Favre is proving that retirement would’ve been a mistake. Fabulous numbers (28-45, 369 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs) and good use of eight different receivers keeps the Pack offense rolling, with WRs Donald Driver and Greg Jennings hauling in 10 passes for 208 yards and 2 TDs. Pack D contains LaDainian Tomlinson and rest of Chargers offense just enough to seal impressive win. Chargers now 1-2 and coach Norv Turner on hot seat.

Ravens 26, Arizona 23—Cards QB Matt Leinart gets benched and sub Kurt Warner almost shows him how to do it, with 15-20 for 258 yards and 2 TDs. Ravens (2-1) win tight one at home on Matt Stover’s last-second field goal. Baltimore controls clock and grinds this one out. QB Steve McNair has decent game but replaced late due to nagging injury. Rookie Yamon Figurs sparks Ravens with 75-yard punt return for a TD.

Jets 31, Dolphins 28—Winless Fins put together balanced offense and score some points but can’t contain Jets in New York. Jets, now 1-2, benefit from another canny, error-free performance from Chad Pennington, 110 yards rushing from Thomas Jones and a 98-yard kickoff return from Leon Washington.

Chiefs 13, Vikings 10—Chiefs get first victory with solid defense (5 sacks) and a step-up performance from rookie WR Dwayne Bowe. Chiefs RB Larry Johnson still can’t get untracked in the running game, with 24 carries for only 42 yards. Vikings (1-2) get 102-yard performance from rookie Adrian Peterson but not much of anything else on offense. Vet Kelly Holcomb replaces injured Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback.

Seahawks 24, Bengals 21—QB shootout won by Matt Hasselbeck in the last minute boosts ‘Hawks to 2-1 while Bengals fall to 1-2. Cincy QB Carson Palmer puts up big numbers but also throws two INTs. WRs Chad Johnson and T. J. Houshmandzadeh combine for 21 catches for 279 yards. Seattle RB Shaun Alexander gains 100 yards on 21 carries.

Raiders 26, Browns 24—Tightly contested affair goes to Raiders for their first win of the season. Daunte Culpepper replaces injured Josh McCown at quarterback for Oakland, which mostly rides the running of LaMont Jordan (29-121) to the victory. Browns RB Jamal Lewis has mediocre game to follow-up last week’s 200+-yard effort. Both teams now 1-2.

Jaguars 23, Broncos 14—Jags (2-1) dominate time of possession almost 2-to-1 to gain road victory. Balanced attack features unspectacular but error-free effort from QB David Garrard and 173 rushing yards from Garrard, Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. Broncos (2-1) contained effectively both in the air and on the ground by stout Jags D.

Panthers 27, Falcons 20—Winless Falcons waste excellent effort from QB Joey Harrington, who completes 31-44, for 361 yards, 2 TDs, and 0 INTs. Panthers get efficient quarterbacking from Jake Delhomme and backup David Carr, plus a pair of TDs and big yards on the ground from DeShaun Foster (20-122) to close out a closely contested battle. Falcons hurt themselves badly with 135 yards worth of penalties.

Media Notes
NBC’s grandiosely named “Football Night in America” is, in a word, bombastic. All we can say is that Bob Costas is at least not an ex-player, which is getting to be pretty refreshing these days. The lead-in show to “Sunday Night Football” features a real kiss-ass feature where ex-jocks Chris Collinsworth, Tiki Barber and Jerome Bettis huddle at their own little “kids table” and swap POVs from the player perspective. (Hey, Bus, how are those thinking and talking lessons coming along?) But worst of all is decidedly non-jock Keith Olbermann, who goes from pillar to post trying to decide if he’s a serious newsman or a sports funnyman. Surprise, Keith—you’re neither. All I can say is, you can tell he didn’t go to Harvard or Yale. If I didn’t know it was Cornell, I’d’ve guessed Brown. (You know, the school that made Lisa Simpson apoplectic when she projected that attendance there would mark her forever as a “mediocre” genius.) Olbermann is neither witty nor enlightening, and clearly sports run a distant second to his real love: himself. Why not do a taped player profile in that slot—with cool action footage—instead of making us watch Keith playing with his toy telephone?

“Monday Night Football” was a relatively quiet affair. The Booth Boys were okay, and Jaworski was getting some mileage out of his game analysis. The jabber about New Orleans, the city, making a comeback post-Katrina, etc., has gotten tiresome, though. I did like it when the camera focused on a woman with short blonde hair and large breasts, sporting a t-shirt that said something about “keep rebuilding.” But then Little Suzy Kolber did a cutesy-pie interview with former Saints player Archie Manning. She asked Peyton’s dad about New Orleans, whereby Archie proceeded to inform us that the food and the music and the French Quarter were “all back,” and the city just needed people to start coming back again. Typical “tourist dollar” mindset, Archie. Not too incisive. Maybe this time around the folks of New Orleans could build their city on good infrastructure, light industry, manufacturing, e-commerce, retail businesses, and decent schools and public safety, with a tax climate that will provide incentives for all of that. These people are living in a dream world, methinks. And after the Saints got their butts kicked by the Titans, they might have to start rebuilding again themselves.

Media question of the day: Is FOX football announcer Kenny Albert Marv Albert’s son? If he is, does he get kinky in the bedroom too?

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Tuesday Morning Quarterback: NFL Week #2 Winners and Losers...w/ Media Notes

Surprise victories by the Browns, Cardinals, Buccaneers, 49ers and Texans confirm that the road to a division title will be a lot tougher than expected for some preseason favorites. The Saints and the Jets, for example, are out of the box with an 0-2 record, and that’s definitely not a good sign for them. Meanwhile, the Lions, Packers, 49ers and Texans are feeling their oats at 2-0. This is getting interesting very quickly.

Cleveland Browns 51, Cincinnati Bengals 45—Brady who? Browns quarterback Derek Anderson struck a blow for unsung heroes everywhere, leading his team to 554 total net yards and a shockingly satisfying intra-divisional victory over Cincy. The Bengals poured on the points themselves—Carson Palmer threw for 401 yards and 6 TD passes—but couldn’t stop Cleveland’s relentless offensive onslaught. Browns running back Jamal Lewis turned back the clock a few years, rushing for 215 yards on 28 carries, including a 66-yard TD run. Browns receivers Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow and Joe Jurevicius combined for 18 catches and 5 TDs. Meanwhile, the Bengals have questions to answer on defense. Pop quiz: Where did Anderson go to college? (Answer below.)

Indianapolis Colts 22, Tennessee Titans 20—One big play away from victory, the Titans fell short in the face of a Colts defense determined to bottle up Vince Young as time ran out. Hard-hitting battle looked like harbinger of an intensified rivalry between these AFC South teams. Manning & Co. still formidable, though.

Pittsburgh Steelers 26, Buffalo Bills 3—Steelers grind out convincing victory over wounded Bills. QB Roethlisberger and RB Parker sharp again, as Pittsburgh moves to 2-0, outscoring opponents 60-10 thus far. Steelers defense also looks to be at full early throttle.

Jacksonville Jaguars 13, Atlanta Falcons 7—Jags’ late surge carries the day. QB David Garrard plays with control, spreading out his 17 pass completions to 9 different receivers, with no interceptions. Mostly a battle in the trenches, which is usually a positive scenario for Jacksonville. Falcons D steady, but offense never catches fire. Atlanta QB Joey Harrington completes 12-20 passes for 200 yards, without an INT.

Houston Texans 34, Carolina Panthers 21—Who’s that atop the AFC South at 2-0? Well, the Colts, of course, but also the Texans, who rode QB Matt Schaub’s arm—20-28, 227 yards—and smart field generalship to a convincing road victory. Aging runners Ahman Green and Ron Dayne combined for 115 yards on the ground for Houston, and Schaub hooked up with WR Andre Johnson for two aerial scores. Carolina air attack okay, but running game flaccid, gaining only 66 yards net.

Arizona Cardinals 23, Seattle Seahawks 20—Balanced Cardinals attack outlasts the Seahawks, in a game that helps signal the potential changing of the guard in the NFC West. Cards QB Matt Leinart hits 8 different receivers with 23 pass completions, and Edgerrin James gains 128 yards on the ground with a touchdown. Seahawks competitive but not good enough in this one.

Denver Broncos 23, Oakland Raiders 20—Broncos win another close one to move to 2-0, but not before the visiting Raiders prove that they’re playing with intensity. Oakland’s D recorded two sacks (one for a safety) and two interceptions (one for a TD), and the team rebounded from a 17-3 first-half deficit to take the lead in the third quarter, with RB LaMont Jordan gaining 159 yards on 25 carries. Raiders QB Josh McCown pretty dismal—going 8-16 for 73 yards with 3 INTs—despite a 46-yard TD pass to Jerry Porter. Sophomore Denver QB Jay Cutler hangs tough, and RB Travis Henry totals 128 yards rushing.

Chicago Bears 20, Kansas City Chiefs 10—Chicago gets four sacks, forces two fumbles, makes an interception, and Devin Hester returns a punt 73 yards for a touchdown. It’s a familiar recipe for success for the Bears, who were nonetheless challenged physically by the Chiefs, who recorded three sacks, grabbed two INTs and forced a fumble of their own. In fact, the Chiefs gained more yards total than the Bears, whose offense did only one thing of any serious note: getting RB Cedric Benson through the decent KC defense for 101 rushing yards. Chiefs RB Larry Johnson held to 55 yards on 16 carries. Hester also had a kickoff return for a TD called back for a penalty; his speed and elusiveness mark him as the single most dangerous talent of his kind in the league.

Baltimore Ravens 20, New York Jets 13—Sub QBs square off, and the Ravens’ Kyle Boller—in for injured Steve McNair—triumphs with efficient, error-free effort featuring two TD passes. The Jets’ Kellen Clemens steps in for Chad Pennington and acquits himself respectably, but two interceptions mar his first NFL start. Jets receivers don’t help by dropping catchable passes. Ravens’ D also records four sacks and forces a fumble. Jets now 0-2, hoping to get back on track at home next week versus Miami.

Green Bay Packers 35, New York Giants 13—The Pack blows open a close game in the fourth quarter, exploding for three TDs. Brett Favre looking like a youngster once again, completing 29-38 for 286 yards and 3 TDs. Giants offense doing some things right but not enough really well. Neither team breaks the 100-yard mark on the ground. Packers' D gaining momentum as team moves to surprise 2-0 start. Giants 0-2 and looking for cohesion.

Detroit Lions 20, Minnesota Vikings 17—With the plentiful turnovers—9 in all—it didn’t look like anyone wanted to win this game, but the Lions triumphed in overtime on a Jason Hanson field goal. Lions QB Jon Kitna was knocked out of the game with a concussion but returned to lead the game-winning drive. Kitna threw an INT; his replacement, J.T. O’Sullivan, threw two; and Vikings QB Tarvaris Jackson scuttled his team’s chances with four interceptions. Detroit’s running game nonexistent, but 9 different receivers gathered in 35 passes for 393 yards. The 2-0 Lions head to Philly next week to take on the 0-2 Eagles.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31, New Orleans Saints 14—Once again, the Saints’ defense looked porous, and it cost them versus a Bucs team striving to redefine itself. Bucs QB Jeff Garcia conducted a seminar on passing efficiency—10-16, 243 yards, 2 TDs—and Cadillac Williams scored twice, while the Tampa Bay defense forced three fumbles, intercepted one pass and recorded two sacks. The New Orleans passing game appears in synch, but the running game has generated little in two losing efforts.

Dallas Cowboys 37, Miami Dolphins 20—After grabbing a 13-10 lead early in the third quarter, the Fins wilted in their home stadium. Cowboys QB Tony Romo avoided mistakes, Marion Barber ran efficiently, and Dallas scored 20 unanswered points to put the game out of reach. Dolphins still searching for a running game, and while QB Trent Green made some plays, he also threw four INTs. Miami D played well at first, then got torched.

San Francisco 49ers 17, St. Louis Rams 16—Six sacks and two forced fumbles helped the Niners keep it close on the road, and a Joe Nedney field goal carried the day late in the fourth quarter. Rams passing game piled up yardage, but RB Steven Jackson has yet to achieve expected numbers in first two games. Niners off to 2-0 start in NFC West. Rams fall to disappointing 0-2.

New England Patriots 38, San Diego Chargers 14—Big Sunday night TV matchup turns into a snore, as Pats’ Tom Brady and Randy Moss play practically flawless offensive football while their mates on defense clamp down on Chargers’ RB LaDainian Tomlinson. New England led 24-0 at halftime, forced two fumbles, made two interceptions and held LT to 43 yards on 18 carries. Pats’ videotape furor an afterthought.

Washington Redskins 20, Philadelphia Eagles 12—It might be the weakest 2-0 in the league, but the Skins are nevertheless off to a good start. They’re not really doing anything extraordinary on either side of the ball, but they’re doing enough for now. QB Jason Campbell continues to show growth, and the defense is hitting. The Eagles’ offense has struggled under Donovan McNabb, who is rebounding from a serious knee injury (ACL).

Media Notes
Sunday night football was a bore, as the Patriots trounced the Chargers. I left the game at the half. And I’m afraid I can’t watch or listen to John Madden anymore without thinking of Frank Caliendo’s impersonation of the legendary color guy. Listen closely to Madden’s rap. Most of what he says is the most obvious nonsense. Sorry, John. You’ve been there for us a long time, but...

As for the "Monday Night Football" telecast, here were the notables:

1. Tony Kornheiser making quasi-leering remarks about The View’s Elizabeth Hasselbeck. A little weird, but I’ll admit she’s cute. Just not sure the PC police would approve. And what is it with Tony and The View? A few years ago, when he was on radio, he was getting audio hard-ons about Meredith Vieira. Maybe Tony’s angling to replace Whoopi Goldberg. He could do it in drag probably, but then he’d look too much like Barbara Walters.

2. Extended, and ultimately unnecessary, discussion of Eagles coach Andy Reid’s two 20-something sons, both having legal and behavioral problems. Plenty of apologies made for Reid, how tough it is to coach a football team when you have personal travails, etc. I dunno. Seems like many a man with those issues would take a leave of absence from his job in deference to helping his kids. Seriously, I wish Reid and family all the best in the world, but I don’t think this situation makes him a martyr.

3. Now at halftime we get more of “PTI”? Kornheiser and Wilbon on Monday night? Surely we can have a better feature to fill that time.

4. Distaff report: Michele Tafoya and Suzy Kolber. Both were hollering a little from the sidelines. I missed the perceived agreeable restraint they were exercising last week. The “female-side” human-interest angles—”Coach Andy Reid told me...”—remain forced.

5. Charles Barkley in the booth? What a good idea. Let’s put Charles Barkley in everybody’s booth. He’s great. He asked Ron Jaworksi if he thought the $500,000 punishment/fine for Bill Belichick’s “Videogate” offense was excessive. Jaws kinda waffled, like the corporate hack he is. Great question, Chuck. And yes, it was excessive.

6. Then Jaws came out with this golden tidbit: “Thirty percent of the Eagles’passing plays are play-action...” Hmmm... let’s think about this. I would guess that every team in the league is around this average. Right? Like, maybe, 70 percent are normal drop-back plays, and 30 percent are play-action? Since when did play-action become the rare province of the Eagles? Air-filler, Jaws. Air-filler.

Quiz answer: Derek Anderson played his college ball at Oregon State. He was selected in the 6th round of the 2005 draft by the Baltimore Ravens.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

NFL Wrap-Up: Week #1 Winners and Losers

A quick look at the first week of NFL action. Injuries studded the landscape, and some surprise opening-game victories might portend changes in
divisional dominance.

Indianapolis Colts 41, New Orleans Saints 10—An impressive win over a good Saints team proved the Colts’ offense is as potent as ever. Indy’s re-tooled defense also looked surprisingly aggressive and fast. Saints could never get off the schneid, and sophomore RB Reggie Bush was a non-factor.

New England Patriots 38, New York Jets 14—Pats unveil new pass-and-catch duo of Tom Brady and Randy Moss (9 catches, 183 yards). Special teams and sound defense also help to throttle the Jets in New York. Jets QB Chad Pennington injured his ankle and was replaced for a time by backup Kellen Clemens. New Jets RB Thomas Jones makes inauspicious debut.

Denver Broncos 15, Buffalo Bills 14—The Broncos escape Buffalo with a hard-fought victory, won in the final seconds on a Jason Elam field goal. QB Jay Cutler, RB Travis Henry and WR Javon Walker put up stellar numbers for Denver. The Broncs’ defense clamped down on the Bills’ promising passing game. Bills rookie RB Marshawn Lynch gains 90 yards and scores a TD in his NFL debut. Bills suffer critical injuries to important members of secondary, plus lose reserve TE Kevin Everett to crippling, even life-threatening injury.

Tennessee Titans 13, Jacksonville Jaguars 10—Vince Young mediocre, but RBs Chris Brown and LenDale White combine for 241 rushing yards, shredding a vaunted Jacksonville run defense on their home field. Meanwhile, the Titans’ defense holds Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew to 48 yards rushing. QB David Garrard runs Jags’ offense capably enough.

Washington Redskins 16, Miami Dolphins 13—Skins get 157 yards on the ground out of Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts, and Antwaan Randle El catches 5 passes for 162 yards. Even so, Skins need overtime field goal by Shaun Suisham to slip past the Dolphins. Trent Green respectable in debut as Fins’ QB, but Miami running game fails to get untracked.

Green Bay 16, Philadelphia Eagles 13—It wasn’t pretty, but Packers win big home game on a last-second field goal by rookie Mason Crosby. Favre-led Packers offense sputtered a lot, but defense looked strong. Eagles offense shows sparks but never catches fire behind Donovan McNabb.

Carolina Panthers 27, St. Louis Rams, 13—Panthers flash balanced offense of old and hold Steven Jackson to 58 rushing yards in impressive road victory. Carolina QB Jake Delhomme posts strong numbers (18-27, 201 yards, 3 TDs), while Rams QB Marc Bulger has mediocre performance. St. Louis All-Pro Orlando Pace sat out second half with arm injury, adding to mounting offensive line woes.

Minnesota Vikings, 24, Atlanta Falcons 3—Vikings defense dominates in convincing win. Rookie Adrian Peterson gains 103 yards on the ground and catches a pass for 60 yards and a TD. Good news for Minnesota, since the bad news is that Peterson’s fellow RB Chester Taylor was carted off the field in the first quarter with a hip injury. Sophomore QB Tarvaris Jackson manages offense capably. Falcons lackluster in every phase of game.

Pittsburgh Steelers 34, Cleveland Browns 7—Browns never have chance in Cleveland, as Steelers romp. Ben Roethlisberger hurls 4 TD passes and Willie Parker gains 109 yards on the ground. First career victory for new Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. Browns have almost nothing to cheer about, including subpar quarterbacking by Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson. Brady Quinn speculation moves to front burner.

Houston Texans 20, Kansas City Chiefs 3—Texans use shutdown defensive effort to spur easy win. Kansas City RB Larry Johnson held to 43 yards rushing. New Houston QB Matt Schaub plays smart and efficient and throws a 77-yard TD pass to Andre Johnson. Veteran KC receiver Eddie Kennison left the game in the first quarter with a hamstring injury; Houston loses starting strong safety Jason Simmons for the season with a torn left patellar tendon.

San Diego Chargers 14, Chicago Bears 3—LaDainian Tomlinson rushes for one TD and throws for another. Chargers dominate time of possession, while defense clamps down on Bears in hard-hitting victory. Bears generate little offense; RB Cedric Benson stuffed at line repeatedly.

Seattle Seahawks 20, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6—Tough D and a balanced offense lead Seattle over Bucs. Shaun Alexander flashes old consistent ways with 105 rushing yards. Seattle records 5 sacks. Jeff Garcia does little of note in QB debut for Tampa. Bucs RB Cadillac Williams injures ribs, fails to return to action after gaining 60 yards on 12 carries.

Detroit Lions 36, Oakland Raiders 21—Lions flash exciting offense, grab seemingly decisive lead, then give it all back to the Raiders in Oakland. Then 19 4th quarter points ice the victory. Lions QB Jon Kitna throws three TD passes, each to a different member of his gifted receiving corps. Highly touted Lions rookie WR Calvin Johnson caught six balls for 70 yards and scored one touchdown in his pro debut. Raiders QB Josh McCown delivers productive numbers (30-40, 313 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) and RB LaMont Jordan gains 70 yards on 15 carries with a TD.

Dallas Cowboys 45, New York Giants 35—Dallas wins seesaw offensive battle, led by QB Tony Romo’s 345 passing yards and 4 TDs. Dallas RBs Marion Barber and Julius Jones combine for 131 rushing yards, and WR Terrell Owens scores two TDs. Giants QB Eli Manning posts productive numbers (28-41, 312 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT), while RB Derrick Ward gains 89 yards on 13 carries and catches a TD pass subbing for Brandon Jacobs, who was injured during the game along with Giants DL Osi Umenyiora. Manning also bruised his shoulder and his short-term status is uncertain. The Cowboys’ lost nose tackle DL Jason Ferguson for the season with a torn bicep injury.

Cincinnati Bengals 27, Baltimore Ravens 20—Excellent “Monday Night Football” opener finds Bengals outmuscling Ravens. Cincinnati defense outshines team’s vaunted offense, makes critical big plays. RB Willis McGahee gains 77 yards in Ravens debut. Injuries hit Ravens, however, with veterans OL Jonathan Ogden, LB Ray Lewis, QB Steve McNair and KR B.J. Sams all sitting at one point. Kyle Boller replaced McNair for the Ravens’ final desperation drive.

San Francisco 49ers 20, Arizona Cardinals 17—”MNF, Part Deux” is a back-and-forth battle typified by lackluster offenses and hard hitting throughout. QB Alex Smith leads Niners to game-winning drive in last minute after failing to move the team all night. QB Matt Leinart has similar problems for Cards. Vet Cards RB Edgerrin James is productive with 92 yards and a TD. A messy but aggressive contest that failed to define either team’s potential fortunes in the coming year.

Media Notes
The lead “MNF” team of Tirico, Kornheiser and Jaworski had a fairly successful night in the booth covering the Bengals-Ravens tilt. Kornheiser actually evoked some chuckles, and “Jaws” was going to town with the play analysis. A lot of air space was simply filled, of course, but there was some cohesion and some interesting insights too. In addition, distaff field reporters Michele Tafoya and Suzy Kolber both seemed to be performing with welcome restraint, toning down the overkill intensity and straightforwardly allowing the combo of camera and measured voice convey their pieces effectively—and with listenability. (Could it be that ESPN bosses are reading and heeding our SMA critiques??)

The second “MNF” telecast featured the Weenie Greenie (Mike Greenberg) launching his dream career plans as heir apparent (in his mind, anyway) to Al Michaels as a play-by-play announcer. I’ve never heard Greenberg do play-by-play of any kind before, but he’s used his ESPN radio show as a podium to announce his desires to get into this area of sports broadcasting. (Doing that radio show is no doubt a bore—and too much work—for the Weenie at this point, and there are bigger fish for him to fry as he climbs the ladder to legend-in-his-own-mind status.) Apparently he whined enough to the right people to secure this gig. He brought his radio lap dog Mike Golic along for security (and to do color commentary), with yet another Mike (Ditka) also in the booth—making it no doubt the first occasion in the history of sports broadcasting where all three guys at the mike were named Mike. It wasn’t the worst experience, and in some ways “Mike x 3” was a little less buttoned down than the typical fare. On an artistic note, both Greenberg and Golic are way too nasal for my aural tastes. They lack the clear, crackling voices of the front-line sports talents. Ditka, however, does not have that problem, and as always he’s kind of fun in his meatheaded way. If Greenberg’s gonna do this again sometime, he might want to bone up more on the names and numbers of the players he’s covering. He was improvising quite a bit on the play calls, and usually waited till after the action to tell us who did what. (Or put a faster spotter in his earpiece. Preferably someone named Mike.)

Friday, September 07, 2007

Whoops, Whoopi! Washed-Up Comedian Defends Vick (Sort of), Displays Geographical Ignorance on “The View”

Remember Whoopi Goldberg? That comedian from the ‘80s and ‘90s who segued into an acting career for a while? Yeah, I could hardly remember her myself. Then this past week she took her new seat on “The View,” that ghastly concoction that Wikipedia describes as a “multiple Emmy-award winning American daytime talk show that airs on the ABC network.” “The View” won an Emmy? “The View” won an Emmy??? All-righty then!

Anyway, Whoopi sat down with the other ignorant, logic-challenged women on “The View” and the subject turned to Michael Vick. While everyone’s brows were furrowed, Whoopi began to opine that to understand Michael Vick was to understand the culture in which he was reared. You know—deprived culture, poor culture, ghetto culture. (Sort of—but actually not really—the kind of culture Whoopi was reared in. You know—hard knocks, disadvantaged, racist.)

It’s true that Vick grew up in a public housing project on the poor side of Newport News, Virginia. His mother was 16 when she gave birth to him, and he was her second child. (Whoopi was 18 when she gave birth in 1973 to her daughter, Alexandrea, who in turn went on to have a child herself in 1989 at the age of 16. But I digress...)

Apparently, for Michael, like many kids in the area, sports provided a way out of that environment. There is no, as far as anyone knows, anecdotal evidence that dogfighting (the federal crime to which Vick has recently admitted) happens in the neighborhood in which he lived.

Maybe Whoopi knows more about the Newport News projects than we might have previously guessed. But she came a-cropper when Barbara or Joyce—I always get those two mixed up—asked her what part of the country Vick was from.

“Oh,” said Whoopsy, furrowing her brow even deeper than her Viewmates, narrowing her eyes and shaking her head with omniscience and faux-sensitive disapproval, “the Deep South.”

Immediately , the 15-watt light bulbs went off in the Viewheads. But of course! If you live in the DEEP South, then you are in deep do-do! ‘Cause that’s where all the ignorant and racist white people live, and someone like Michael Vick would have been a victim of that and ergo it would have affected his brain and rubbed off on him and made him become part of a dogfighting gang after he became a multimillionaire football player!

Needless to say, anyone with access to a moldy old Rand McNally map of the U.S., or who can quick-click on the PC, knows that Virginia is not the Deep South. It has never been considered the Deep South. Not geographically, and not culturally. Virginia—just south of Washington, D.C., and just east of Kentucky—is the state that last fall repudiated incumbent U.S. senator George Allen in his reelection bid, in part because he was exposed as a possible racist. Virginia was the very last Southern state to cast its lot with the Confederacy in 1861, so divided was its citizenry about the possibility of civil war. As a pundit explained about the Allen situation, “Virginia is more a purple state nowadays than red.”

No, Whoopi, Michael Vick did not grow up in the Deep South. (That would be Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana, in case we're keeping score. And girl, get your good self a good map!)

It is one thing to be ignorant, but it is quite another to be ignorant and to be on an “Emmy-winning” TV show, where you have a podium to infect others with your ignorance. I have no idea—and neither does Whoopi—why Michael Vick got into dogfighting, but it seems wise when pondering the issue to leave your own stupidity and bigotry at home.

Gee, I miss Rosie already.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Who Is Mark DeRosa, and Why Is He Doing Those Wonderful Things for the Cubs?

As of this writing, the Chicago Cubs hold a shaky one-half game lead in the National League’s Central Division. But even with a mild case of the DTs, it’s remarkable that the Cubs are in the pennant chase at all, given the team’s penchant for ultimate failure. For now, it’s okay to savor the moment.

Most casual fans would look at the Cubs and assume that they are where they are because of players like Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, and the team’s most prominent addition for 2007, Alfonso Soriano. Not to mention the pitchers, like surprise 14-game winner Ted Lilly and flaky 14-game winner Carlos Zambrano (when he’s on his game—which he hasn’t been of late).

Suffice to say it’s been a team effort on Chicago’s North Side. Ramirez or Lee will probably lead the team in batting average. Soriano or Ramirez will probably lead in home runs. Ramirez will probably snag the team RBI crown. Yet for all the good these guys are doing, one wonders where the Cubs would be without Mark DeRosa.

He’s not exactly a household name, but he’s no complete stranger either. The thing about DeRosa is that good fans mostly have known about him in at least a peripheral way, but most of us surely didn’t know how good he was. Or how darn versatile.

DeRosa is currently hitting .289 for the Cubs, with 63 RBIs, good enough for third on the club behind Ramirez and Lee. He has played every infield position this year, plus left and right in the outfield.

At 32, DeRosa (left), a native of Passaic, N.J., is what we call in the trade a journeyman. He’s been in the majors since 1998, when he first came up with the Atlanta Braves, who drafted him in the 7th round of the 1996 amateur draft after he completed his collegiate career at Penn. (Yep, DeRosa is an Ivy Leaguer.).

His first three seasons were only brief stints, in which he appeared in only 34 games and amassed only 24 at-bats. From 2001 to 2004, he was a semi-regular for the Braves, with batting averages that veered from .239 to .297. He moved in free agency to the Texas Rangers in 2005, seeing only limited playing time, then in 2006 had—for him, anyway—a breakout year of sorts, batting .296 with 40 doubles, 13 homers and 74 RBIs.

DeRosa is having similar success in his first year with the Cubs. He’s listed at 6’1,” 205 pounds, but somehow he looks taller on television. He’s got a sweetly measured swing, and with his apparent composure at the plate, and his versatility in the field, he's become an unsung hero for the North Siders. He's also been indispensable to manager Lou Piniella's lineup maneuverings, especially when Soriano was out for several weeks with a severe leg injury. DeRosa's an excellent #2 batter, with his knack for getting the bat on the ball, but he can also produce from the #5-#7 slots with his clutch hitting and occasional power.

DeRosa also has postseason experience, appearing in 13 divisional and championship series games for the Braves, 2001-2003, compiling a batting average of .368. With some luck, he might again be able to revisit the playoffs. If so, he'll be one of the major reasons why the Cubs have gotten there.

Monday, September 03, 2007

NFL 2007: Predictions, Prognostications and Playoff Possibilities

I wonder if the late Pete Rozelle and the other godfathers of parity ever had nightmares. Like waking up in a cold sweat after dreaming that every single team in the NFL had completed the season with an 8-8 record. League bosses would have to determine playoff participants entirely by looking at head-to-head intra-divisional results, intra/inter-conference records, strength of schedule comparisons, and then point differentials. Actually, such a scenario would be pretty funny, though it can’t possibly be what Pete & Co. envisioned all those years ago. The problem with 8-8 is that—let’s face it—it sucks. It’s fine and dandy if your team is trying to make the leap from a 4-12 record; otherwise, it’s barely acceptable—it’s nothing to aspire to.

I imagine that there will be some obviously topnotch teams come the end of the 2007 football season, but there have been a fair amount of coaching changes this year, as well as serious shakeups on the personnel side (especially at quarterback) and an influx of some interesting rookies. If ever there were a year where 8-8 might look pretty good—and pretty ubiquitous—this could be it. Divisional competition will be stiff almost everywhere, and that makes predicting finishes damn difficult.

This year, I tried to get a clue from looking at the casualties on final cutdown day. If a team is letting proven vets go, does that mean they’ve acquired clearly superior talent to replace them? Or is it just a budget decision and the replacement player isn’t necessarily a step up in grade? Hard to tell.

Ultimately, it’s the schedule that’ll dictate the rise and fall of key teams. When you’ve overachieved the previous year—the Jets, for example—you now have to face stiffer extra-divisional competition. Often, teams like that simply aren’t ready for the more challenging new gauntlet. Neither are we prognosticators, who can only look at the talent and decide who might make things happen at the right time.

Here are the SMA season predictions for 2007. Teams are listed by order of projected record and finish. The playoff projections are a bonus.

National Football Conference



EAST
Dallas Cowboys (9-7)—The Cowboys look to be the most balanced outfit in the East. Only time will tell if the coaching change to Wade Phillips will add or detract to the development of younger players like Tony Romo, Julius Jones, Marion Barber, etc., or have some kind of positive impact on a guy like Terrell Owens. There’s killer young talent on defense such as Marcus Spears and Demarcus Ware, plus a promising rookie LB in Anthony Spencer. A veteran secondary has been enhanced by the arrival of former Seahawks safety Ken Hamlin. There’s also a new placekicker, Nick Folk. This team might be better than 9-7, but they’ll have to prove it against a schedule that includes 6 tough divisional games plus tilts against the Bears, Rams, Patriots, Jets, Panthers and also teams like Minnesota and Detroit, who won’t be pushovers.
Key additions: Head coach Wade Phillips, FS Ken Hamlin, LB Anthony Spencer (R), K Nick Folk (R)

Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)—The return to health of Donovan McNabb should help the Eagles’ bid for the playoffs. Their schedule is a tad lighter than the Cowboys, but they still face the Bears, Pats and Saints out of their division. Question marks remain. Will Brian Westbrook be able to produce as he has in the past after taking a pounding the past few years? How good are those receivers? The defense is mostly a veteran bunch, and the addition of Takeo Spikes should help, so long as he stays healthy (which has been a problem). Andy Reid always seems to coach up the Eagles beyond their value on paper. If they equal last year’s 10-6, it’ll be a small miracle. If McNabb should get hurt, the quarterbacking falls to rookie Kevin Kolb, who looked impressive in the preseason.
Key additions: LB Takeo Spikes, WR Kevin Curtis, QB Kevin Kolb (R)

Washington Redskins (8-8)—This could be Joe Gibbs’ last chance to prove his comeback as a head coach was worth the effort. The skill positions are loaded: Clinton Portis, Ladell Betts, Antwaan Randle El, Santana Moss. Problem is, they were there last year when the team went 5-11. A lot depends on the improvement of quarterback Jason Campbell. The defense has youth and aggression in the backfield, plus veteran London Fletcher has been added to the linebacking corps. The pass rush, however, still needs to develop. There’s a ton of talent on this team, but putting it all together has been an elusive challenge.
Key additions: LB London Fletcher, SS Laron Landry (R)

New York Giants (8-8)—Yet another mystery team. Last year’s .500 finish was a huge disappointment in New York, but 8-8 could be a blessing this time around. RBs Reuben Droughns and Brandon Jacobs take up the slack left by the retirement of Tiki Barber. Meanwhile, QB Eli Manning tries to vault himself into the league’s higher echelon of signal-callers. Nagging preseason injuries to WR Plaxico Burress and TE Jeremy Shockey don’t help that situation. The defense has question marks everywhere, either due to age or unknown quality. Youngsters may need to step up or else coach Tom Coughlin’s going to be holding more of those antagonistic press conferences. If he doesn’t win this year, he’s probably a goner.
Key additions: RB Reuben Droughns, K Lawrence Tynes, CB Aaron Ross (R)

SOUTH
New Orlean Saints (12-4)—The Saints advance from last year’s 10-6 record to post the best mark in the conference. Drew Brees is a great quarterback who is entering his prime. Reggie Bush’s second year should be exciting to watch. The young and talented receivers could get pushed by rookie Robert Meachem, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Not many changes on defense, but the off-season acquisition of Jason David from the Super Bowl-winning Colts can only help. Playing in the weaker South also helps the W-L record.
Key additions: CB Jason David, K Olindo Mare, WR Robert Meachem (R), S Kevin Kaesviharn

Carolina Panthers (8-8)—The Panthers are still struggling to find their mojo. Their schedule favors them if they can manage to re-assert their 2005 form. Yet coach John Fox’ record goes up and down like a yo-yo. Theoretically, this would be an “up” year. Jake Delhomme is a quality quarterback. RBs DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams have talent. Ditto the receiving corps, led by Steve Smith. The defense looks healthier this year, and if rookie Jon Beason can achieve at linebacker, the veteran secondary will be that much better. The potential to surpass 8-8 is definitely there, but it’s impossible to know which Panthers team will be showing up.
Key additions: SS Chris Harris, QB David Carr, LB Jon Beason (R), WR Dwayne Jarrett (R)

Atlanta Falcons (5-11)—New head coach Bobby Petrino didn’t know he’d be walking into a psychological sawmill when he took this job. Still, there is some hope. Maybe Joey Harrington won’t be too bad at quarterback. Surely he can throw to TE Alge Crumpler as well as Michael Vick did, and maybe a balanced offense can squeeze another good year out of RB Warrick Dunn, with sophomore runner Jerious Norwood given broader opportunities to flash his speed and quickness. The receivers are still a mystery squad. The regulars never really seem to have a nose for the ball, but maybe vet Joe Horn, added during the offseason, can show 'em how it’s done. The defense has some talented hard-nosers throughout, but the worry is age and who would pick up the slack in the event of injury. Honestly, the Falcons could do much better than 5-11, but the recent karma, the challenges of life under a new coach, and the schedule—filled with teams in the same boat, striving to be better—seem to argue against that.
Key additions: Head coach Bobby Petrino, QB Joey Harrington, WR Joe Horn, K Matt Prater

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)—If newly acquired QB Jeff Garcia’s so great, why is this team finishing at 5-11? Possibly because the problem that reared its ugly head last year—sudden aging—hasn’t yet been alleviated. The Bucs’ defense has plenty of marquee names, plus the team acquired ex-Colts LB Cato June in the off-season. Essentially it’s the same crew that allowed 353 points last year on the way to a 4-12 record. To the team’s credit, they drafted a lot of defensive talent in April that seems to be sticking with the club. Meanwhile, Garcia will try to invigorate an offense that scored 211 points in 2006, lowest in the conference. RB Cadillac Williams’ sophomore season was a huge disappointment, so he needs to prove himself all over again. Plus, the receivers are getting long in the tooth, with Joey Galloway, David Boston and Ike Hilliard still on the roster. Heck, Garcia himself is 37. If this team overachieves and avoids injury, maybe they’ll improve, but it’s hard to know by how much.
Key additions: QB Jeff Garcia, LB Cato June, DL Kevin Carter, DL Gaines Adams (R)

NORTH
Chicago Bears (10-6)—It’s very easy to want to make a case for the Bears’ demise. Last year’s 13-3 record seemed like a myth, yet the team did make it to the Super Bowl. They’ll try it again in ‘07 with Rex Grossman under center. But he won’t have RB Thomas Jones there to anchor the effort. Instead, the ground game falls to former first-round draft pick Cedric Benson, who, in two years so far, has yet to prove that he’s a durable every-down back. Benson looks to me like a goal-line bruiser, but that’s all. Obviously, the Bears are hoping he’s more than that, yet he’s been injury-prone also. Maybe scatback rookie Garrett Wolfe will get a chance to earn the job should Benson falter. At any rate, in many ways this looks like the same Bears team on both sides of the ball, minus miscreant Tank Johnson and plus Lamborghini-crashing malcontent Lance Briggs. Rookie TE Greg Olsen has been getting pre-season raves. But without a producer like Jones in the lineup, the Bears might be a very different offensive team, with more responsibilities resting on Grossman’s shoulders. Like Benson, he still has not yet fully established himself. Yet the Bears’ defense remains formidable, and that should help them make their way to the playoffs.
Key additions: S Adam Archuleta, RB Garrett Wolfe (R), TE Greg Olsen (R)

Detroit Lions (10-6)—Can a team really go from 3-13 to 10-6 in one year? Guess we’re going to find out. The Lions were better than their record last year. Behind QB Jon Kitna and a great receiving corps, they scored plenty of points, and they were only blown out three times. The offense, under guru offensive coordinator Mike Martz, should continue to improve this year, especially if rookie WR Calvin Johnson is who we think he is. So it’s the defense that has to rally in order for the sea change to occur. On paper, the talent is there, with younger vets poised to assert themselves as a unit. If that happens, and coupled with a relatively easy schedule, the Lions could turn it all around. Working against them are the years of bad karma, but maybe head coach Rod Marinelli can light a fire under these guys. Off-season acquisition Tatum Bell begins the season starting at running back, while injured Kevin Jones recuperates from a broken foot.
Key additions: RB Tatum Bell, RB T. J. Duckett, WR Calvin Johnson (R), DL Dewayne White

Minnesota Vikings (8-8)—The Vikings were clearly the best 6-10 team of 2006. They were in the playoff hunt until the last few weeks, mostly because their defense ranked fourth in the NFC in points allowed. This year they face the problem of a new quarterback, Tarvaris Jackson, taking over the reins of the offense. For this reason alone, the Vikes may never even get close to .500, so this prediction is a definite reach. On the other hand, rookie RB Adrian Peterson should give the offense a huge lift. If Jackson can keep the big mistakes to a minimum, and the defense keeps playing to its potential, the Vikes might build on last year’s record. Like the Lions, they have a schedule that well suits their level of play. Games against the Chargers, Cowboys and Eagles will be tough, as will the home and-away series versus the division-rival Bears, but otherwise the Vikes have a shot at all other comers.
Key additions: RB Adrian Peterson (R), QB Kelly Holcomb, WR Bobby Wade, WR Sidney Rice (R)

Green Bay Packers (6-10)—Brett Favre turns 38 on Oct. 10. He’s still smart and productive. If he had first-rate talent surrounding him, he could take this team somewhere. But as far as we know, he doesn’t. The running game will rest on the performance of rookie Brandon Jackson; after him, it’s a totally speculative affair. Key WR Donald Driver is nursing a preseason injury, which leaves promising sophomore Greg Jennings to lead the rest of the no-names. Actually, the Packers’ defense offers hope. There are veterans at every tier, and if this unit gels the Packers might be able to keep most games close.
Key additions: RB Brandon Jackson (R), DL Justin Harrell (R)

WEST
St. Louis Rams (11-5)—The Rams could be the new kings of the West. The offense is unquestionably good and varied, with QB Marc Bulger, RB Steven Jackson and a first-rate receiving corps that now includes veteran TE Randy McMichael, picked up in the offseason. The defense has veteran talent throughout, still young enough to come together for the duration. Rookie DL Adam Carriker has been receiving raves, and if he disrupts opposing offensive lines early and often, the Rams’ linebackers and safeties become that much more effective. The Rams were 8-8 in ‘06, so the leap to 11 Ws is not a huge one.
Key additions: FB Brian Leonard (R), DL Adam Carriker (R), TE Randy McMichael

San Francisco 49ers (7-9)—The Niners were 7-9 last year. They’ll disappoint a lot of people if they repeat that performance, especially after adding talent through free agency and making some smart draft moves. If Alex Smith is the real deal at quarterback, then maybe they win more than 7. Terrific runner Frank Gore has been nursing a preseason injury, though, and it remains to be seen if former Seahawk Darrell Jackson is the answer to a prayer at wide receiver. The defense definitely should be juiced, though, especially if it can summon a pass rush. The Niners could be better than we know, but they still have to prove it.
Key additions: WR Darrell Jackson, LB Patrick Willis (R), LB Tully Banta-Cain, CB Nate Clements, SS Michael Lewis, OL Joe Staley (R)

Arizona Cardinals (7-9)—For a team that finished 5-11 last year and has a brand new head coach—Ken Whisenhunt—this squad surprisingly hasn’t changed much. The offense is strong in the passing game and gets only better with the continued development of second-year QB Matt Leinart. It remains to be seen if RB Edgerrin James—yet another year older—can produce at expected levels. It took him a good long while last season to get into gear, but he finally finished with 1,159 yards (yet a lackluster 3.4 yards per attempt). The personnel upgrades to a defense that yielded 389 points in 2006 are minimal. The Cards should definitely be better in ‘07. If they get lucky too, and build some momentum, they could be a surprise in the playoff picture.
Key additions: Head coach Ken Whisenhunt, DL Alan Branch (R), FS Terrence Holt, OL Levi Brown (R)

Seattle Seahawks (6-10)—They’ve been the class of the division for a good while now, but something tells me Mike Holmgren & Co. are due for a fall. The personnel hasn’t changed much since '06’s 9-7 squad, and, in 15 years of coaching, Holmgren has only posted two losing seasons (6-10 in 2000, and 7-9 in 2002). But the divisional competition has been upgraded, and the rest of the schedule includes games against Cincy, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Chicago, Philly, Carolina and Baltimore. It’s not that big a downward drop from 9-7 to 6-10. A bounce here, and a miscue there, is all it takes. The addition of vet Patrick Kerney should help the D-line play, and there are new faces in the secondary. Call this a speculative hunch.
Key additions: TE Marcus Pollard, DL Patrick Kerney, FS Brian Russell, S Deon Grant


American Football Conference



EAST
New England Patriots (12-4)—The Pats kept surprising football fans by continuously upgrading through free-agency in the off-season. They do look pretty invincible, especially if the wide receivers come through. In fact, throughout their recent dynasty, that’s the one position that was never manned by all-world talent; the idea of Tom Brady now throwing to Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth is fairly imposing, and there’s plenty of depth too. But the best addition was Adalius Thomas, a big, mobile and versatile linebacker, 30 years old and at the height of his powers. His presence takes on extra resonance with the recent injury to DL Richard Seymour. Former Dolphin Wesley Welker is also a huge addition; he’s an impact player on special teams and is going to be a sneaky weapon as a wideout. The Pats’ running game bears watching, however. Strangely enough, with all the offseason finagling, they’re really only left with Laurence Maroney as a front-rank running back. This becomes academic if he simply builds expectedly on his freshman resume. He’s good, for sure. He’ll need to stay healthy.
Key additions: WR Randy Moss, WR Donte Stallworth, WR Wesley Welker, LB Adalius Thomas, CB Tory James, CB Brandon Meriweather (R)

New York Jets (9-7)—Where do you go after you shock the world with a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance? That’s the question for second-year coach Eric Mangini. The Jets have most everybody back from last year, and if newly acquired RB Thomas Jones can maintain his health, the offense will have the consistent dimension it lacked at times last season. QB Chad Pennington needs to stay healthy, too. There’s been talk about him being challenged by young Kellen Clemens, but I don’t buy it. Pennington is a very smart quarterback—one of the savviest in the game. He produces, and that’s all that matters. Rookie Darrelle Revis arrived late to training camp, but he could eventually help the secondary.
Key additions: RB Thomas Jones, CB Darrelle Revis (R)

Buffalo Bills (7-9)—Given offseason additions and subtractions to this roster, the Bills look to be about where they were last year—struggling for .500. They should be respected because they have younger defensive talent ready to take it to the next level, and also some younger weapons on offense. And who’s to say they can’t overachieve? If they somehow win 9 games, I wouldn’t be surprised, but besides four games versus the Patriots and the Jets, they face the Broncos, Steelers, Cowboys, Bengals, Jaguars, and Eagles. Tough slate.
Key additions: CB Jason Webster, RB Marshawn Lynch (R), LB Paul Posluszny (R), QB Trent Edwards (R)

Miami Dolphins (5-11)—Quite frankly, I have no idea where this team is headed. The prediction says downward from last year’s 6-10. Of course, 2006 first-year head coaches Eric Mangini and Sean Payton took their teams to the playoffs—from virtually out of nowhere—and newbie Cam Cameron would love to do the same. He’s got Trent Green at quarterback, and Green compiled quite a resume with the Chiefs. RB Ronnie Brown should be solid, and there are good receivers in Chris Chambers, Marty Booker and maybe rookie Ted Ginn, who, no matter what, provides firepower on special teams. The defense is studded with veteran (maybe aging) studs—Vonnie Holiday, Keith Traylor, Jason Taylor, Zach Thomas, Channing Crowder, newly acquired (but ailing) Joey Porter—and mostly unknown quantities in the secondary. Six challenging divisional games, plus games against Dallas, Philly, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincy don’t make the road easy for Cameron.
Key additions: Head coach Cam Cameron, QB Trent Green, TE David Martin, K Jay Feely, LB Joey Porter, WR Ted Ginn (R)

SOUTH
Indianapolis Colts (11-5)—Defections the past two years from the defense make head coach Tony Dungy’s task a little more difficult in 2007. The offense is a given, and should be as good as ever. But since 2005, the Colts have lost Larry Triplett, David Thornton, Cato June, Nick Harper and Jason David from the defense, a unit that last year yielded 360 points. Like the cavalry, the D arrived in the nick of time for last year’s playoff run, and they were good enough to win a Super Bowl. Still, there’s got to be some period of adjustment here, and you can lose shootouts as easily as you can win them. The impact of offseason acquisitions and drafted talent to improve the situation is not yet apparent. Nevertheless, 11 wins looks do-able.
Key additions: WR Anthony Gonzalez (R)

Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)—David Garrard is the quarterback, and the competition, Byron Leftwich, is gone. Otherwise, the big difference in the ‘07 edition of the Jags is health. Injuries affected the defense a lot last year. If they can get back to the dominance of ‘05, opponents better look out. If Garrard handles the O with aplomb, there are good weapons to exploit. His performance is still a wild-card factor at this point. But presuming the D keeps the Jags in most every game, they could win a lot and challenge the Colts for divisional supremacy.
Key additions: WR Dennis Northcutt, S Reggie Nelson (R)

Tennessee Titans (8-8)—Really, for all the talk about Vince Young as Superman, this is still a mystery team. Last year’s 8-8 was certainly a surprise, but can they build on that or will they only tread water? The Titans are a question-mark machine. Will LenDale White and Chris Brown become a formidable running back duo? Can a receiving corps led by Brandon Jones (50 career receptions), 34-year-old Eric Moulds, and lesser-knowns and rookies help Young’s development? If the draft choices spent recently on defensive linemen are so good, why did the team pick up oft-injured 30-year-old Corey Simon late in training camp? Can the special teams and defensive backfield pick up the slack left by the departure of Pacman Jones? To their credit, the Titans brass got on the Pacman thing immediately, signing free agents Nick Harper and Kelly Herndon and then drafting Texas safety Michael Griffin, who is being converted to cornerback. Rookie WR Chris Davis looked good in the preseason as a punt returner, too, and second-year man Cortland Finnegan looks like an able secondary role player and also a potential return man. But probably the biggest question is, If the Titans are only mediocre in most phases of the game, how far can Young take them on grit and talent alone? He’s got it all, for sure, but he’s only human. (Isn’t he?)
Key additions: WR Eric Moulds, DL Corey Simon, CB Nick Harper, CB Kelly Herndon, CB Michael Griffin (R), WR/KR Chris Davis (R)

Houston Texans (7-9)—It’s a tad tempting to project this team a little higher. They were 6-10 last year, and maybe they’ve made enough changes to warrant a two-game leap upward. But I dunno. Matt Schaub still has to prove he’s better than David Carr. The other big off-season acquisition, RB Ahman Green, is 30 years old and clearly not in his prime (which was 2003, when he rushed for 1,883 yards with an average of 5.3 yards per carry). The other runners are Ron Dayne and Samkon Gado. This team has the air of “Green Bay Packers South” about them, and I don’t know if that’s such a good thing. On defense, they’re waiting for '06 #1 draft choice Mario Williams to assert himself at the end position, and they’ve added another big young body at tackle in rookie Amobi Okoye. There’s some talent sprinkled into the linebacking corps and the secondary, and the acquisition of vets Shawn Barber and Michael Boulware might work out. Rookie WR Jacoby Jones got people excited during the preseason. Then, of course, there’s the schedule: six tough divisional games against Indy, Jacksonville and Tennessee, plus Carolina, San Diego, New Orleans, and Denver. Interesting team to watch.
Key additions: QB Matt Schaub, RB Ahman Green, WR Jacoby Jones (R), DL Amobi Okoye (R), DB Michael Boulware, LB Shawn Barber

NORTH
Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)—I’m not sure how I arrived here. The Bengals still have players on suspension because of their off-the-field follies. They lost defenders like Kevin Kaesviharn and Tory James in the offseason. They have no decent backup quarterback behind Carson Palmer. Still, they have talent, and it just looks possible for them to take this division. If Palmer goes down, all bets are off, of course. But he’s terrific if he’s playing, and he’s got weapons to throw to. Rudi Johnson is still the best running back no one ever talks about (4,221 yards rushing the last three years). The defense needs some tweaking, but coach Marvin Lewis always has that unit playing hard. Good health and players keeping their noses clean (literally and figuratively) could pave the way for Bengals success.
Key additions: CB Leon Hall (R), S Marvin White (R)

Baltimore Ravens (9-7)—Why will the Ravens drop four games down from last year’s 13-3 finish? Well, the schedule is no picnic: At least four tough divisional games versus Pittsburgh and Cincy, then throw in the Jets, the Rams, the Chargers, the Patriots, the Colts and the Seahawks. They’re a year older on defense, and so is QB Steve McNair, whose backup is Kyle Boller, still waiting to show the world he’s a first-stringer in the NFL. Not to mislead anyone, however; the Ravens still have tons of talent, though the loss of LB Adalius Thomas to the Pats in the offseason has got to hurt. If RB Willis McGahee proves his mettle—suddenly, the kid’ll be 26 on Oct. 20, and he’s still not averaging 4.0 yards per carry in his career—that helps McNair mightily. The Ravens could repeat as division champs, but the road looks rockier.
Key additions: RB Willis McGahee, OL Ben Grubbs (R), WR/KR Yamon Figurs (R)

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7)—If you’re like me, you’d never heard of Mike Tomlin before he was announced to replace Bill Cowher as coach of the Steelers. No one envies the shoes he has to fill, but Tomlin inherits a team that is intact and has a chance to rebound to 2005 form. The key players on both sides of the ball are essentially unchanged from ‘06, which means a lot of talent and a lot of aggressive ball-playing. If people achieve where they’re supposed to—Roethlisberger now healthy, Willie Parker looking great in the preseason, quality receivers, and a talented, hard-nosed defense throughout—Tomlin should succeed. The schedule’s tough, though, and factoring in the coach’s youth (he’s 35) and newness to his job, 9 wins looks pretty good. Yet it could be more.
Key additions: Head coach Mike Tomlin, LB Lawrence Timmons (R), LB Lamarr Woodley (R)

Cleveland Browns (6-10)—Charlie Frye has been handed the reins at quarterback. It may be a logical move, him being the incumbent and all, but it’s not like he’s Brett Favre. So, are the Browns’ brass hoping Frye does really well—so well that Brady Quinn sits all year long? It’s the conventional move—let Quinn stand and watch with a clipboard for a while. But I’m not sure I buy the old saw about young QBs losing confidence if they screw up early on, or are operating behind a lousy O-line and get sacked to death. I mean, that could go either way, right? For example, John Elway just got better. Ditto Peyton Manning. And Vince Young. The Browns are certainly hoping that Jamal Lewis will be maintaining form at running back, though it’s probably pie in the sky to think he’d ever return to his spectacular 2003 numbers. There are good receivers here—Edwards, Winslow, Jurevicius—which is only another reason to kinda think maybe Quinn should just start from the get-go. The defense has young, talented linebackers who are sandwiched in between a D-line and a secondary striving for recognition. The Browns dropped from 6-10 in 2005 to 4-12 in ‘06, but they weren’t a worse team. They play in a killer division—they were 0-6 last year versus Pittsburgh, Cincy and Baltimore—and then played everyone else respectably. It won’t be much different in '07, probably, which just makes me think Quinn should get the nod on opening day. Isn’t that why they drafted that big tackle Thomas ahead of him? Throw him in to the fire. Maybe he’s made of asbestos.
Key additions: QB Brady Quinn (R), RB Jamal Lewis, OL Joe Thomas (R)

WEST
San Diego Chargers (11-5)—If Mike Tomlin’s position isn’t enviable, how about Norv Turner’s? He takes over a 14-2 team. How do you improve on that? Well, just get ‘em to the playoffs and win a game or two, I suppose. The Chargers are loaded, and QB Philip Rivers has another year under his belt, which is good news for the offense. Not many changes have been made anywhere. The team could use help at wideout, though, and Turner hopes rookie Craig Davis is the answer. Despite drafting low, the Chargers managed to find a crop of youngsters good enough to make this team, so that bodes well for depth on both sides of the ball. Turner’s a good coach, and he’s never previously had such a talented club at his disposal. But he’ll be operating under the pressure to succeed in a big way, which probably won’t be much fun.
Key additions: Head coach Norv Turner, WR Craig Davis (R)

Denver Broncos (8-8)—If I were coach Mike Shanahan, I’d be up nights worrying: Is Jay Cutler going to be a great quarterback? Will Travis Henry stay healthy and avoid off-the field crud? Do I have enough beef on my defensive line to disrupt the opponent’s passing game? Am I getting old in the secondary? Who replaces Rod Smith? The Broncs finished 9-7 last year—not bad for a team transitioning at quarterback. But looking at the schedule, and factoring in the fact that Cutler is not yet walking in John Elway’s footsteps, it’s possible this team will be hard-pressed to exceed their '06 record. Still lots of talent here, operating within a proven system and very well coached. Newcomer Daniel Graham should help at tight end, and if rookie Jarvis Moss makes an impact at defensive end, Shanahan won’t have to worry quite so much about 36-year-old John Lynch, 34-year-old Nick Ferguson, and 30-year-old Dre’ Bly in the secondary. Heck, even CB Champ Bailey is 29 now. (Where do the years go?) Yet the late, recent roster addition of DL Simeon Rice, thought to be washed up, does make one wonder how desperate Shanahan is for finding ways to rush the passer.
Key additions: RB Travis Henry, RB Selvin Young (R), TE Daniel Graham, DL Sam Adams, DL Jarvis Moss (R), CB Dre’ Bly, DL Simeon Rice

Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)—Damon Huard is the undisputed Chiefs quarterback. This is strictly a watch-and-see proposition. He’s performed well in his career when he’s gotten opportunities, but why is he finally getting his first full-blown chance at the age of 34? He didn’t even play in the the NFL in 2004 and 2005, yet has risen like the phoenix to become a starter after the team let Trent Green go. It’s an old story: If Huard can ”manage” the offense, mostly by handing off to RB Larry Johnson, then he’ll be counted as a success. The Chiefs have picked up two veteran linebackers, Donnie Edwards and Napoleon Harris, in the offseason, and they drafted two big bodies to help anchor the D-line. (In fact, the Chiefs had what looks to be a very productive draft overall.) The secondary has some age but also experience. If the D steps up and dominates, possibly the team matches last year’s 9-7 finish, in which they made the playoffs by a hair (then collapsed against the Colts). The postseason looks less likely in '07.
Key additions: LB Donnie Edwards, WR Dwayne Bowe (R), LB Napoleon Harris, DL Turk McBride (R), DL DeMarcus Tyler (R)

Oakland Raiders (4-12)—It’s progress to go from 2-14 to 4-12. Who knows, maybe new coach Lane Kiffin and quarterback Daunte Culpepper can rally the troops to higher heights. Despite the holdout of #1 draft choice JaMarcus Russell, the Raiders drafted well. They’ll have a new tight end in Zach Miller, and possibly Johnnie Lee Higgins can provide excitement in the return game. Fact is, the Raiders’ D wasn’t that bad in '06—that is to say that plenty of other teams leaguewide (14) gave up more than the 332 points they yielded. LaMont Jordan looks poised for a good year running the ball, and when suspended Dominic Rhodes gets back on the team, the running game gets better. Of course, if Culpepper doesn’t excel, or proves to be direly immobile, the team’s outlook might turn bleak. Still, in a year that looks to be parity-rich, they could easily overachieve.
Key additions: Head coach Lane Kiffin, QB Daunte Culpepper, QB Josh McCown, RB Dominic Rhodes, QB JaMarcus Russell (R), TE Zach Miller (R), DL Gerard Warren, WR/KR Johnnie Lee Higgins (R)
[Note: Shortly after publication, it was reported in the sports media that Josh McCown would start the Raiders' opening game at quarterback.]

PLAYOFFS

NFC

Wild Card Round: Panthers over Bears; Cowboys over Lions
Divisional Round: Saints over Panthers; Rams over Cowboys
Conference Championship: Saints over Rams

AFC
Wild Card Round: Colts over Ravens; Jaguars over Bengals
Divisional Round: Chargers over Colts; Patriots over Jaguars
Conference Championship: Patriots over Chargers

Super Bowl
Patriots over Saints