Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Titans in Trouble: Injuries, Creeping Competition Spell Impending Doom

Remember the glory days of 2008, when the Tennessee Titans were 10-0 and looked to be a surging AFC power? They had a killer defense and two strong young running backs, and it seemed like they were only going to get better as the playoffs loomed.

Well, those days are gone.

In their past four games, the Titans are 2-2. Their victories were over the Lions and Browns, two teams that might have trouble beating this year’s 5-7 Tennessee Vols. Their losses, however, were to improving teams, the Jets and the Texans.

Therein lies a problem: The Titans’ success might be a by-product of a weak schedule. They have essentially three quality wins in ’08, over Minnesota, Baltimore and Indianapolis. Possibly the Nov. 9 victory at Chicago can be counted as a Q win.

Yes, 12-2 looks mighty nice, but if you’re only knocking off a bunch of pansies, then you’re not getting battle-hardened. Contrast that with the regimen of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have built an 11-3 record playing a schedule that included games versus Philadelphia, Baltimore, the Giants, Indianapolis, New England and Dallas.

Weeks ago, no one would have dreamed that the Titans wouldn’t have had home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Now, the Steelers come into LP Field this Sunday, with a chance to shake up all that presumed security. If the Steelers leave town with an identical 12-3 record, the Titans then face the prospect of playing the red-hot Colts—10-4, and on a seven-game winning streak—in their final road game of the season, and absolute home-field advantage stands a very realistic chance of being in jeopardy. (The Steelers conclude their season at home against the woeful Browns.)

The Titans are hurting. Their staunch defensive line is no more, with injuries to Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch keeping them out of games until the playoffs arrive. Even then, neither will be at 100 percent.

As for the running game, there’s reason to believe it will return, but the Titans haven’t much balanced the Smash and Dash of Chris Johnson and LenDale White with their passing game. Kerry Collins has his moments, as do his receivers, but there’s no way the Tennessee passing attack will ever be confused with an elite operation. It’s been a concern from the very beginning, even through all those easy-looking early victories: How do the Titans come back in games in which they might just fall behind? Or in situations where they need to score quickly? Or desperately?

The automatic formula for success has been scuttled by injuries and mediocrity, and the fact is that the Colts and Steelers are playing better football at the right time. As are possibly the 9-5 Ravens, Jets and Patriots.

The Titans’ worries would be less, of course, if they’d managed to grab a win in Houston this past Sunday. Down 13-12, late in the fourth quarter, with the ball on the Houston 32, the Titans engaged in some weird decision-making.

It was 4th down, 3 to go. Now, the conservative call is to let ace kicker Rob Bironas attempt a 49-yard field goal to grab the lead, and then allow the sputtering Texans’ offense to try to march the other way with time running out. Instead, Titans coach Jeff Fisher decided to run a play, presumably to get the first down. Strange. The play called had Collins throwing an errant, incomplete pass toward the end zone. Game over. Titans lose.

Were they going for broke? Why, when three yards got them a first down and closer to within Bironas’ range? How about a quick one over the middle to the tight end? Something short and secure.

Fisher claimed at his Monday news conference that the field goal was not, in his opinion, within Bironas’ range. Hmmm...this is a kicker who made a 60-yarder once to defeat the Colts. I’m sure that wasn’t within his range either that day, but the fact is that Bironas has a strong leg, and 49-yarders are, if not a gimme for him, then certainly a good bet with the game on the line.

Even playing uncertain football, the Titans could be 13-1 and sitting in the catbird seat. Instead, the Steelers are breathing down their collective neck, and the smell of inevitable postseason failure is in the air.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Big 12 Teams Play No Defense, Sooners' Dominance Based on Skewed Statistics

Oklahoma is hanging its claim on a shot at the national championship based in large part on the fact that they have scored more than 60 points in each of their past four games. It’s evidence, says coach Bob Stoops, of momentum and superiority. We won’t dispute that the Sooners are swamping their opponents, but do points mean dominance when you play in a conference where nobody plays any defense??

I jumped on the Big 12 bandwagon myself after watching Texas Tech defeat Texas 39-33 on Nov. 1. That was a very exciting game, and both Tech’s Graham Harrell and the Longhorns’ Colt McCoy looked like supermen, standing back in the pocket (with seemingly all the time in the world), eyeing their receivers with precision and then zinging the ball with frozen-rope accuracy. Entertaining stuff.

But has it ever occurred to anyone that maybe the high-profile Big 12 quarterbacks—McCoy, Harrell, Sam Bradford, Zac Robinson—put up all those unreal numbers not because they’re so otherworldly great but because no one in the Big 12 gives a hang about putting a kickass defense on the field? Heck, even the vaunted Sooners routinely give up 30 points a game (except when they’re playing such challenging out-of-conference opponents like Chattanooga).

This line of inquiry induced me to take a look at a list of the current active NFL quarterbacks. My premise: If the Big 12 is so darn great, and so dominant offensively, how many quarterbacks from the conference are presently playing in the NFL, and at what level?

The answer is four, and not that prominently: Sage Rosenfels, Iowa State (Texans), Chris Simms, Texas (Titans), Seneca Wallace, Iowa State (Seahawks), Vince Young, Texas (Titans). Not exactly a collection of world-beaters. And not a one from Oklahoma. Or Texas Tech.

Young in particular stands out: an impressive physical specimen who wowed college sports in leading the Longhorns to the national title following the 2005 season. After some exciting performances with the Titans in ’06 and ’07, Young played himself off the field in ’08, and in fact he had showed signs of difficulties in running a pro offense long before that. Simms looked promising a few years ago with the Buccaneers, but now he sits waiting for a chance along with Young in Nashville, both eclipsed by an aging Penn State product, Kerry Collins. Wallace has never risen above the level of a mobile QB who occasionally makes plays. Only Rosenfels actually looks like a first-string pro, though he sits behind Matt Schaub when Schaub is healthy.

Fact is, when you randomly riff through the names of the all-time-great pro QBs, past and present, the Big 12 rarely comes up. Starr (Alabama), Marino (Pitt), Favre (Southern Mississippi), Namath (Alabama), Bradshaw (Louisiana Tech), Staubach (Navy), Montana (Notre Dame), Tarkenton (Georgia), Unitas (Louisville), Fouts (Oregon), Young (Brigham Young), Jurgensen (Duke), Brady (Michigan), Manning (Tennessee/Ole Miss), Bob Griese (Purdue), Phil Simms (Morehead State)—not a one of these guys played in the Big 12. And here’s an interesting tidbit: Troy Aikman, who excelled at UCLA and became an NFL great, actually began his college career at Oklahoma before transferring. One wonders what might have happened if he’d stayed in Norman.

Could it be that the factory football school mentality found in the Big 12 is not conducive to producing creative, inventive quarterbacks who can lead on a bigger stage? I’m just asking.

In any case, now that the Sooners have been crowned, as it were—and presuming they can get past Missouri in the Big 12 title game (I’m praying for an upset, of course)—I’m definitely looking forward to seeing them play Florida or Alabama in the title game. And actually, it's too bad USC is probably out of the title picture. Those guys know defense.

The best teams play D—except in the Big 12. Sam Bradford, beware.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Musburger's Misquote of Famous Rickey Aphorism Leads Weekend Media Hits

Brent Musburger bit the big one over the weekend. While broadcasting the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State football game on Saturday night for ABC, dumb ol’ Brent misquoted the great baseball executive Branch Rickey. Trying his darndest to be “eloquent,” and make a relevant quip germane to the game action, Brent burst forth excitedly with this gem, “As Branch Rickey once said, ‘Luck is the residue of...skill...’ ” Uh no, Brent, you horse’s ass. The Rickey quote, known far and wide to intelligent, well-premised sports observers everywhere, is, “Luck is the residue of design.”

Musburger’s nearly 70, and he’s still as big a putz as he ever was. Getting into broadcasting must be like getting a position in city government: once you're in, you can stay in, even if you're an idiot, so long as you don't kill someone.

Speaking of putzes, familiar with this cat named Jason Whitlock? He was subbing for the godawful Jim Rome on FOX radio this past Friday, and he hit the airwaves ranting and raving about how ESPN isn’t interested in good stories, how the sports giant dominates with lousy (often tabloid-style) ideas designed only to promote their broadcasting agenda, and how they’re not interested in the truth. Whitlock went on and on and on and on...stopping to take a breath only to further pepper us with his belief that the Ball State football team had achieved its unprecedented 12-0 mark this season in spite of lousy support from the school’s administration—take that, Muncie!—and also how ESPN had apparently systematically overlooked this story because it wasn’t “cool” (or something like that).

Moments later, a guy calls in, extols Whitlock for his forthrightness, and then begins to criticize Rome as yet another sports a**hole of the very type that Whitlock was decrying. In one of the most glaring examples of broadcaster hypocrisy you’ll ever witness, Whitlock then cut off the caller, saying that he couldn’t allow criticism of Rome, since it was Rome’s show and Whitlock was there filling in for him. Doh!

Yer an a**hole, Jason. And a hypocritical horse’s ass. What a d-bag.

The news isn’t all bad on the broadcasting front, though. Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf handled the play-by-play for Sunday’s Steelers-Patriots game (CBS), and they did an excellent job. Gumbel’s always very good—straightforward, clear, informative, appropriately enthusiastic—but the improvement in Dierdorf is remarkable. For years, ol’ Dan used to bombastically lisp his fat-mouthed way through his commentary, preferring to use volume to make his points instead of wit or insight. Now Dan’s never going to be a member of Mensa, but at least he’s lowered his voice a bit and delivers reportage in more measured tones. He keeps the hyperbole to a minimum now also, and he seems to have conquered his speech impediment. Way to go, Dan. You’re still a meatheaded jock, dude, but you appear to have learned a little about making the game interesting for those of us watching it.