Articles By Athlon Sports
With Peyton Manning missing his first game in decades with a neck injury, we wanted to take a look back at the beginning of his career. This article originally appeared in Athlon's 1995 college football annual.
Archie's boy became a big Manning quickly at Tennessee
by David Climer, The Tennessean
Peyton Manning, resplendent in an orange jersey but still unmistakably green around the edges, jogged toward the huddle on that September evening, mindful of his father's advice.
"Even though you're a freshman," dear old dad told him a couple of days earlier, "take charge of the huddle."
Manning leaned in to complete the 11-man oval, his spotless uniform contrasting against the blood and sweat and smell of the others. It wasn't yet halftime, but Tennessee was already beaten and it showed. Florida was quick-kicking the Vols all over the Neyland Stadium field, and emotions were strained.
Attempting to rally the troops, Manning offered encouraging words to his older, wiser teammates. But the impromptu pep talk didn't get far.
"Shut the bleep up and call the bleeping play," said offensive tackle Jason Layman, three years Manning's senior and infinitely wiser in the ways of the college football world.
Welcome to the Southeastern Conference.
OK, a little journalistic license may have been taken with Layman's comment, but it underscores what Manning discovered in that galvanizing moment. Perhaps it was a coming-of-age for an 18-year-old. In September, it was becoming abundantly clear that the new kid in town would soon become the big man on a campus that adores its football team.
It was a daunting situation. Freshman quarterbacks, even those with such exemplary pedigrees, are not supposed to make the quantum leap from high school skirmishes to major college warfare without suffering inevitable breakdowns in confidence and performance.
"Nobody understands what a huge jump it is," says Heath Shuler, Tennessee's starting quarterback the previous two seasons and now a rising star with the Washington Redskins. "I hear people talk about what a difference it is going from the college game to the NFL, but I really believe it's a bigger jump from high school to college. For a freshman to come into a program like the one at Tennessee and handle everything that goes with being a quarterback in the SEC is unbelievable."
Peyton Manning appreciates the kind words, Heath, but he's been dealing with great expectations as far back as he can remember. He is, after all, Archie Manning's son.
"I'm sure it's been tough on him in some ways because people expect so much of him," says Archie Manning, ever the proud father and source of advice on deportment in the huddle. "But we've always taught him that all he could do was go out there and give it his best shot. He's very ambitious. He's always worked hard and he was a delight to raise. You know, it doesn't matter to me if he's a good football player or not. That's just the way it is with a father and his kids."
Wholesome? Corny? Maybe. But in an era of generation gaps and failures to communicate, it is wonderfully refreshing to stand between the Manning quarterbacks - one past, one present - and soak up all these family values. It's almost as if you've been transported to the set of one of those old TV shows where sons actually listen to the advice of their fathers. It's as if Rocky Top has given way to Walton Mountain.
"I feel really fortunate to have grown up in the environment that I have and to have the opportunities that I've experienced," Peyton says. "One thing I've learned, no matter what happens, is to keep a good, level head. My father's like that."
Maybe that's why Peyton has eased into his role as if it were a comfortable pair of jeans. His first-year credentials are impeccable (Freshman All-America and SEC Freshman of the Year) and his off-field performance is just as flawless. Manning is a media favorite because of his willingness to conduct interviews and offer honest views, and his teammates have embraced him because of a blue-collar work ethic that shows in everything from his increased strength in the weight room ("I gained almost 20 pounds of muscle since I got to campus, and I've got a stronger arm now," he says) to his clutch performance in games.
Manning is a serious young man, but he can still laugh at himself. He smiles while telling the story of a case of mistaken identity that transpired last winter, when, during a visit to a Knoxville hospital, a nurse walked up and began talking as if she knew him. The more she talked, the clearer it became to Manning that the nurse thought he was somebody else.
"She was telling me all these things like, 'I saw your mother earlier today and she was about to go visit so-and-so,' and I could tell she had me confused with somebody," Manning recalls. "I waited until she stopped, and then I said 'Ma'am, I don't believe I'm who you think I am. I'm Peyton Manning.'"
The nurse gasped and scurried away.
This is the exception rather than the rule. Tall and athletic, with just the slightest wobble in his walk and a distinctive boyish face, Manning is the most recognizable figure in Knoxville.
Manning navigates the concrete and grass of the Tennessee campus with a pleasant smile. It's the same way he acted at Isidore Newman, a small, private school in New Orleans, and he didn't think it necessary to alter his lifestyle when he arrived on a campus of more than 25,000 students.
He has grown accustomed to the attention. He's a bit embarrassed by it from time to time, but he recognizes that it comes with the turf.
"Around here," Manning says, "Tennessee football is big, whether you're the starting quarterback or a walk-on who has never played before. People are interested in you. They're always looking at you, speaking to you, asking for autographs or just wanting to shake your hand. I get invited to speak to groups, and if people think what I have to say is that important and that interesting, shoot, I'm going to do it. When I was growing up, I had my heroes too."
It is here you that you begin to gain some real insight into Peyton Manning and the world he comes from. If ever a child was born to be a star quarterback, it is he.
Asked to name his heroes, Manning's face quickly twists into a grin. "I didn't have to go very far to talk to my favorite hero. He lived in the same house. Anytime I needed to talk to him about anything, he was there," Manning says.
He didn't mention his father, an All-America quarterback at the University of Mississippi and former New Orleans Saint, by name, but he didn't have to. Some things go without saying.
The rapport has been built through the years. Young Manning was a regular visitor to Saints practices during his father's career. He even made two Pro Bowl trips with his dad, meeting such quarterbacks as Roger Staubach and Dan Fouts, whom he mentions as personal heroes slightly behind his father.
But Peyton kept his distance. He was very much his father's son.
"I never asked for autographs," the younger Manning says. "I thought shaking somebody's hand and telling them my name and 'nice to meet you' was good enough. I guess I just saw my dad signing so many autographs that it left an impression on me. A lot of times he and I would be walking somewhere, and he'd stop to sign autographs for people and I kind of wanted to keep on going."
There is an irony to it. The kid who didn't collect autographs now finds himself with writer's cramp after every home football game.
"I understand autographs; it's a big thing now," Manning says. "I just accept it as part of the job at Tennessee. People get real excited, and I'm happy to sign for anybody that wants my autograph. After the Mississippi State game, even though we lost, I saw the way people reacted when I came out of the locker room and walked to the bus. I said 'Uh-oh. Something's about to get started here. This is no small deal.'"
Indeed, it was no small deal. It was in that game, a loss in Starkville, Miss., that Todd Helton suffered a knee injury, joining senior Jerry Colquitt on the sideline. Suddenly, Tennessee's two apprentices, Manning and fellow freshman Branndon Stewart, were the Vols' only healthy scholarship quarterbacks. The game had changed.
Exactly four weeks ago after his college debut, an uneventful three-play cameo appearance against UCLA in Pasadena, Calif., and two weeks after the huddle faux pas against Florida, Manning, due to make his first start, found himself the center of attention as the team walked from Gibbs (athletic residence) Hall to Neyland Stadium to meet Washington State.
"When we made that walk from the dorm to the field with all those people around, it hits you how big it all is," Manning says. "I could tell how much it matters to everybody. You realize how fast things are changing. Before the first game against UCLA, I told my friends back home, 'Look for me on the sideline. I'll stand by the coach so I can get some camera time.' The next thing I know, Jerry gets hurt, and I say to myself, 'I'm in for a different type of year here.'
"My dad did the best he could to prepare me for the job. The quarterback job is the hardest one on the field. You can go from the top of the cloud to the lowest place on earth in a flash. He taught me to have a level head about it."
The rewards are evident. Manning completed 62 percent of his passes for 1,141 yards and 11 touchdowns. More importantly, he was 7-1 as Tennessee's starting quarterback, which he calls "the best stat to come out of the whole season."
There are a few regrets, not the least of which centers on the departure of Stewart, who packed up in January and transferred to Texas A&M. But, really, the town wasn't big enough for two young-gun quarterbacks.
"Branndon and I could've been real good friends," Peyton says, "but it was something that we both understood. As long as we were competing, there was no way for us to get real close. I thought I was the better quarterback and Branndon thought he was better. There was constant competition.
"From a football standpoint, it's worked out better for me. It means I'm Tennessee's quarterback. I'm going to be taking the snaps. But as far as the friendship part and losing a teammate from my recruiting class, I miss him. It's different without him around."
And then there is the unpleasant matter of last season's Tennessee-Alabama game. There was one pass play in that contest that Manning would like to have back.
The Crimson Tide led 17-13 when, on a last-minute, fourth-and-three play from the Alabama 7, Manning turned to his left and threw low and outside toward Nilo Silvan. On the other side of the field, running back James Stewart was all but ignored by the Crimson Tide defense.
Manning calls the misfire against Alabama "the low point of the season." He says if he had put the pass on target or turned to the other side and found Stewart "then we might have won that game and ended the 10-year drought of not beating them."
But in the aftermath of the Alabama disappointment, Vol players and fans discovered something about Manning. Rather than wallowing in self-pity, Manning stepped into a hostile environment and completed 18 of 23 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns while leading the Vols to victory at South Carolina.
"You just have to keep learning and keep growing," Manning says.
It is with this attitude he took virtually everything in stride as a freshman. Even when Manning was booed by some Neyland Stadium fans during the lackluster victory over the University of Memphis, he kept on plugging, calling upon his background as the son of a quarterback to help him get through the tough times.
"That's just part of it," he said of the brief booing, which occurred at the height of the Great Freshman Quarterback Debate among Tennessee fans. "I was kind of surprised. I wasn't really aware that there was that much booing in college football. I'd been around the Saints a lot, and in pro football you kind of expect it. But I guess it comes with being a quarterback."
Watching Manning direct the offense at the end of last season and in spring practice, it's hard to believe he is entering his sophomore season and is still a neophyte among college quarterbacks. His cool, efficient style would seem to indicate an older, wiser, more experienced player.
"He's in total control," says Bubba Miller, who anchors the offensive line at center. "Even though he is just a sophomore, he proved to all of us what he could do last year. We have absolute faith in him."
Last year, Manning was the pupil. This year he's the teacher.
"I came in and had so much to learn," he says. "I was lucky to have guys like Jerry and Todd to watch and learn from. I can't tell you how many times I would have a question and instead of going to one of the coaches, I'd just ask one of the older quarterbacks. They really helped me because they had gone through everything and remembered how things looked to them when they first got here. That's why I always try to help out the new quarterbacks. I figured that's part of the responsibility of being a starter."
This hand-me-down approach was a key element in the Vols' spring practice routine. With newcomers Jeremy Bates and Shawn Snyder struggling to learn the nuances of the offense, Manning often intervened with words of advice.
"Peyton has been wonderful," says Snyder, a walk-on from Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., who enrolled at Tennessee in January to participate in spring practice and learn the Vols' complicated passing offense. "He's done everything that he can to help us get ready. There isn't enough to say about what he's done to help us both out. He's been a good teacher."
That's all well and good, but the real challenge is on 11 Saturdays this season, when Manning faces up to the expectations of the Big Orange legion. He is no longer a freshman, nor is there any debate about who should be taking the snaps.
"I'll be a lot more comfortable and there'll be a lot more in the offense," Manning says. "They didn't want to overload me last year, but I think I'll be comfortable with the whole package this year. It's amazing what a year can do. I'm much calmer now.
"Now I can get in the huddle and say, "All right, listen up. Let's go make the play.' I couldn't do that in the first few games last year. I've tried to earn the respect of the older guys."
He has. These days, Peyton Manning does more than just call the bleeping play.
Why is the death of Brian Urlacher's mother in the news? Why is it that everywhere I turn, sports pundits on TV and radio feel the need to weigh in on their thoughts on whether Urlacher should or should not play this weekend against the Saints?
The death of Brian's mom should be something that Brian deals with privately. There was a time when media outlets wouldn't dream about discussing this on the air. Now, radio hosts feel as it is their right to give their opinions on how Brian Urlacher should deal with his tragedy. Well, it's not.
Is anything private anymore?
In a perfect world, this is a 20-second news piece about the tragedy and then it should be left alone. How do you think Brian feels hearing his mother's death bandied about across the AM dial like any other news topic? I'm sure he's not too happy about it.
Is it a slow news week? Isn't there a brand new NFL season to discuss? Aren't the baseball playoffs right around the corner? Shouldn't there be other things to talk about?
But this is the problem with the 24-hour news cycle. Everything needs to be discussed to the point of oblivion. If you listen to half the pundits, they will talk about this for 15 minutes, only to end their piece with the standard "But Urlacher should do anything he wants." Like that makes it OK.
As if the gross dissecting of the pros and cons of whether or not he should play while he's grieving the death of his mother can all be wiped away with a platitude before going off to commercial.
As if saying "we all feel for Brian at this time" makes up for the fact that you just spent 10 minutes talking openly about how whether the death of his mother should trump football right now.
If everyone really cared about the way Brian felt right now, maybe you shouldn't keep bringing up the death of his mother on national TV and radio. Because you're only making his time worse right now. Much, much worse.
The Bears season, while important to many, is not more important than family and family tragedy. If we had a little more decency, we would have some perspective about what we choose to discuss and not discuss.
Brian Urlacher, or any player in the national football league, national hockey league, major league baseball--any player anywhere--should be able to deal with matters like this privately, without analysis and discussion for however long he or she needs to.
Football players and athletes everywhere give us so much. Let's give them a little bit back and show a little class and dignity when they need something from us.
by Mark Ross
Tuesday night, Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers shut out the Chicago White Sox 5-0. Not only did the win, coupled with the Cleveland Indians' loss at Texas, push the Tigers' lead in the American League Central to 12.5 games with two weeks to go in the regular season, but it also was Verlander's 23rd win of the season. At 23-5, he already has the most wins by any pitcher to win the Cy Young since Randy Johnson won 24 in the NL in 2002.
He's just the fourth pitcher in the AL with 23 wins since 1990. The previous three — Bob Welch (1990), Pedro Martinez (1999) and Barry Zito (2002) — all won the Cy Young Award that season. Add a no-hitter earlier in the season, a 2.36 ERA, microscopic 0.92 WHIP and a ridiculous 238 strikeouts in 236 innings to his resume and MLB officials may as well go ahead and finish putting his name on this year's AL Cy Young Award trophy to save them some time.
This has been Verlander's year, hands down, which is not to say other pitchers have put up some impressive numbers. In the AL, Jered Weaver (16-7, 2.44 ERA, 187 Ks) has kept the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the AL West race with the Texas Rangers, while C.C. Sabathia (19-8, 2.93 ERA, 216 Ks) has been the lone consistent starter for the New York Yankees. Not to be outdone, James Shields (15-10, 2.70 ERA, 210 Ks) has the most complete games (11) of any pitcher in baseball since 1999 and has tossed four shutouts as his Tampa Bay Rays have made a late-season charge for the AL wild card.
The Cy Young race in the National League is even more muddled with the list of contenders including the reigning winner (Roy Halladay), a former winner in the AL (Cliff Lee) and a couple of young guns in Clayton Kershaw and Ian Kennedy. Halladay (17-5, 2.44 ERA, 204 Ks, NL-leading seven complete games) and Lee (16-7, 2.44 ERA, 211 Ks, six CGs and a ML-best six shutouts) have teamed with fellow starters Cole Hamels (14-8, 2.71 ERA, 177 Ks) and rookie Vance Worley (11-2, 2.92 ERA) to lead the Philadelphia Phillies to baseball's best record.
Meanwhile, in the NL West, Kershaw (18-5, 2.36 ERA, 231 Ks in 213.2 IP) has been one of the few bright spots for the Los Angeles Dodgers this year and at 23, he could become the youngest Cy Young winner in either league since a 20-year-old Dwight "Doc" Gooden won the NL Cy Young in 1985. Not to be outdone, Kennedy (19-4, 2.99 ERA, 182 Ks) is just three years older than Kershaw (26) and has emerged as the ace for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who are on the verge of going worst-to-first in the NL West this season.
Despite all of these impressive credentials, there's no debate that Verlander has been the best pitcher in the AL, if not all of baseball. Who has been the best pitcher in the NL this year? Let's save that for another time shall we? The more important question when it comes to Verlander's dominance on the mound is this — does him being the best pitcher in AL merit him being named the AL MVP?
Nine pitchers in baseball history have been named the Cy Young Award and MVP recipient in the same season. Six (Vida Blue, Roger Clemens, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Denny McLain and Don Newcombe) were starting pitchers, while three (Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers and Willie Hernandez) were relievers.
Eckersley was the last pitcher to be named MVP (AL, 1992), while Clemens was the last starting pitcher (AL, 1986). So should Verlander be the first in nearly 20 years to achieve this rare feat?
There's no denying the Tigers wouldn't be in the position they are, first place in the AL Central, without Verlander. The Tigers have won Verlander's last 11 starts, with him going at least six innings in each of these. His shortest outing of his 32 starts on the season is six innings and the most runs he has given up in any start is six, which was against Tampa Bay back on May 24.
Since then, he's gone 19-2 in 21 starts with a 1.83 ERA and only three outings of less than seven innings pitched. On May 25, the Tigers were 25-23 and six games behind the Indians in the AL Central. Entering Wednesday, the Tigers were 86-62, tying them with the Yankees for the second-most wins in the AL. Coincidence?
Detroit starting pitchers have combined for 67 wins, second-most in the AL, and a 4.07 ERA, which is seventh in the league. The only other team in playoff contention with a higher ERA for its starters is the Boston Red Sox (4.26).
If you were to take out Verlander's numbers (2.36 ERA in 236 IPs) the Tigers' starting pitchers' ERA would balloon to 4.67, which would put them second-to-last in the AL, ahead of only Kansas City (4.95) and Baltimore (5.33). Further, Verlander's consistency and durability as a starter has saved the Tigers' bullpen, which has pitched the ninth-most innings among AL pens.
Considering the relievers have a collective ERA of 4.04, putting them in 11th place among AL relievers, that's a good thing.
Offensively, Detroit's hitters are no slouch as the lineup led by Miguel Cabrera (.332, 26 HR, 97 RBI, 101 R), Victor Martinez (.324, 11 HR, 94 RBI, 71 R) and Jhonny Peralta (.306, 19 HR, 80 RBI, 62 R) have scored the fourth-most runs in the AL and have the third-best team batting average.
However, the Tigers' offensive production is still a far cry from the production of the three teams who have scored more runs — Red Sox, Yankees and Rangers — who also just happen to be the three other AL playoff teams, if the season ended today.
To put it another way, Verlander's Run Support Average of 5.61 puts him in 29th place among starting pitchers in the AL. Among those who have received more run support is three of his teammates (Brad Penny, Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer), not to mention all five Rangers starters, three Yankees (including Sabathia) and two Red Sox.
Outside of Verlander, the only starting pitcher in the AL whose done done more with less support is Weaver (4.33 RS). So not only has Verlander been productive, consistent and durable, he's also been highly efficient. It doesn't get more "valuable" than that does it?
In the end, the AL MVP vote will most likely come down to the debate of everyday position player vs. a pitcher who goes out to the mound once every five days. And there certainly is no lack of candidates among position players for this year's AL MVP with a list that includes (in no particular order):
Jose Bautista (.304, 42 HR, 100 RBI, 100 R)
Jacoby Ellsbury (.321, 27 HR, 94 RBI, 108 R, 36 SB)
Adrian Gonzalez (.340, 25 HR, 109 RBI, 102 R)
Robinson Cano (.305, 26 HR, 111 RBI, 96 R)
Curtis Granderson (.268, 39 HR, 111 RBI, 128 R, 24 SB)
Mark Teixeira (.248, 37 HR, 104 RBI, 85 R)
However the fact that Bautista's Jays aren't in playoff contention and the Red Sox and Yankees each have multiple candidates, a strong argument could be made for Verlander, as he is clearly the Tigers' most valuable player and the best pitcher in all of baseball this season, which incidentally has been called "The Year of the Pitcher."
In fact, it's a shame that the AL MVP votes will be cast before the postseason even starts. Because as it stands now, Verlander would face off against Ellsbury, Gonzalez and the rest of the Red Sox in the AL Division Series and should the Tigers make it to the AL Championship Series, their opponent would be either the Rangers, the reigning AL champions, or Cano, Granderson, Teixeira and the rest of the Yankees. What better way to prove who is the most "valuable" then to have the best square off against the best, no?
Everyone loves a viral video. Even marketing departments of giant corporations. Which is why it's no secret that many of the viral vids your co-workers send you are not actually "real." They're real in that they are a video that's going viral. But they're not real in the fact that the people and stunts in the video are paid actors and the actions taking place are CGI'd more often than you want to believe.
But just because they're fake doesn't mean they're not entertaining. Here are some of our favorite from over the years. Some because they're actually interesting, and some because, well, they're embarrassingly terrible.
1. The Bunt Home Run
Commercial For: Didibao Shoes (maybe)
Some fake viral videos involve expensive CGI and complex camera shots. But this one is genius in its simplicity. Just cut together video of a bunt with video of a home run video using some grainy, foreign Japanese baseball game and voila. (One of the Ten Commandments of making fake viral videos is: Something is much more believable if it's foreign.)
2. Hot Girl Pulls off Insane Golf Trick
Commercial For: Bud Light
We can tell this viral video is fake because no man in his right mind would stand in front of a girl taking a full swing with a driver (and I don't care that he covers his crotch right before she takes a swing). If she could really do this, she'd be on Letterman, not a shaky-shot camera phone in some random backyard. Oh, it also helps that the money shot at the end is a Bug Light bottle. (Full disclosure: I also know this was fake because I created it for Budweiser.)
3. Ball Girl Makes Crazy Catch
Commercial For: Gatorade
While this video was clearly a fake, the Internet went mental for it and it spread like wildfire not long after it's release. Gatorade admitted they were behind it, but only after they said they weren't going to release it. Which seems even fishier than the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon-catch this girl supposedly pulled off.
4. Guy Catches Laptop With His Butt
Commercial For: MSI
This may be my faovrite fake viral ever. It doesn't even try to be real, it just tries to be ridiculously over the top and funny. This is the Internet version of the Old Spice guy.
5. Running On Water
Commercial For: Hi-Tec
Even Jesus was like "Faaaaaake" the first time he saw this.
6. Evan Longoria Makes A Bare-Handed Catch
Commercial For: Gillette
It's a dead giveaway when the description of the video refers to Evan Longoria as a "Gillette Young Gun". I'm not totally clear on how this video makes me want to buy more Gillette razors, but at 5 million views and counting, it clearly did it's job of going viral.
7. Girl Kicks A Soccer Ball Through A Big Donut
Commercial For: Nike
Marketers have clearly figured out that the formula of girl + doing something x Internet video = page views. We really like how she just happens to place the ball down so the Nike Swoosh is facing the camera. That's in the subtley-branded Hall of Fame.
8. Bike Hero
Commercial For: Guitar Hero World Tour
When it came out that this one was fake, everyone went "Who cares, let's watch it again."
9. The Craziest Slip and Slide Ever
Commercial For: Microsoft
I'm not sure how a dude riding a home made slip n' slide jump into a hilariously tiny pool is going to get me to buy more computers, but I'm glad they made this.
10. Rob Dyrdek's Floating Skateboard
Commercial For: SweeTarts
I know this piece is called "Best Fake Viral Videos" but this is clearly on this list ironically. This is by far the lamest one we've ever seen. They should've put some more of their CGI budget into getting actors who can say "Whoa!" a little more believably.
11. David Beckham Has Three Balls
Commercial For: Pepsi
Hi, my name is David Beckham and I drink Pepsi all the time. Oh, and I also hang out with complete morons who like to yell stuff in clown voices while I make CGI'd videos of me kicking soccer balls into trash cans on the beach.
12. Michael Vick Throws a Football Out Of A Stadium
Commercial For: Powerade
Michael Vick is a superhuman specimen, but no athlete is strong enough to overcome crappy CGI.
13. Lebron Hits Some Full Court Shots
Commercial For: Powerade
If they really wanted to pull this off, they should've cut the dopey newscaster (who is clearly not going to win any Academy Awards) and had LeBron not shoot 80 footers like they're a free throw.
Article originally published in 2004 Athlon Sports Racing annual
Opinions are like … well, you know the rest of that saying. Opinions are a little more valuable, though, when they belong to seven of Nextel Cup racing’s top guns. We think you’ll enjoy what they have to say on everything from rules changes to Cup contenders to the best toys — all of it refreshingly candid and unsanitized.
Would you change the point system? Does the winner deserve more points? Do pole winners deserve points?
Jimmie Johnson: I think that it would be beneficial if the winner of the race received more points. The way the points system works now, if you finish second and lead the most laps, you can finish with the same number of points as the winner, so I think there should be some reward for winning the actual race. The pole winner deserving points is a mixed bag. I could go either way. Track position is so important these days that if you win the pole it is a reward to have the track position. In addition, if you win the pole you have the best opportunity to lead the first lap and get five bonus points, so in some ways I can see how people want to reward the pole with points, but in a way, we already do.
Ryan Newman: I don’t really feel like the point system needs changing, but yes, I feel that points should be awarded for poles.
Elliott Sadler: I think the points system is just fine as it is. In all the years the points system has been in place this was the biggest year for controversy. The team with the most consistency earns the most points.
Mark Martin: They can do whatever they want to do with it. It doesn't matter to me. I don't think anything is wrong with the system. It’s the same system that we’ve always had and it has worked really well for us. Just because someone won by a lot of points this year, doesn’t mean we need to change anything. Last year (2002) Matt Kenseth won five races and finished eighth and there was no reason to change it then.
Ricky Rudd: No. I look at it like, why fix something that’s not broken. It’s been that way for many years. There are some arguments for pole position points and so on. But I think the system is pretty good as it is.
Ricky Craven: No, I think the points system is fine the way it is, with the exception of the pole winner. I think the pole winners do deserve some points. I mean, we spend an entire day each week focusing on nothing but qualifying. If we’re going to do that, I feel like the pole winner deserves some kind of reward or bonus for being the best on that day.
Sterling Marlin: I wouldn’t necessarily change the points system, but if they did then the winner and the pole winner definitely deserve more points.
Who besides yourself and your teammate do you consider the front-runner for the 2004 Nextel Cup?
Craven: Jimmie Johnson. His team just seems to have all the right ingredients in place to possibly claim the title. They have the equipment, but more importantly, Jimmie and Chad (Knaus) and the rest of the crew seem to have the chemistry and communication necessary to win it all.
Marlin: I’d say you’d have to look at Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson. They were real strong toward the end of the season. The 8 was really good there at the end of the season as well.
Martin: It’s hard to tell. There are a lot of factors that play into that and there is no way of predicting that now.
Newman: Jimmie Johnson is a good candidate and so is Junior or Jeff Gordon. It really depends on who has the best, most consistent season.
Johnson: I would say that there are about five to 10 teams that could win the championship next year. Just look at how close the points were this season. The No. 8, 12, 29, 24 and 48 were all battling it out for second through sixth and it came down to the last race. The No. 17 was so consistent this season they just didn’t have that many bad things happen to them. You also have to take into consideration the 18 and 20, who had bad luck this year, but they had new bodies this year and you could tell they were trying things that I’m sure will pay dividends for them next year. The team that will win next season is the team that has the fewest what-ifs at the end of the year.
Rudd: I think Ryan Newman is the guy. They have been very strong all year. They’ve had some mechanical problems, but they’ve been very fast on the race track and he’s got them beat I think.
Sadler: Ryan Newman — those boys are geniuses.
If you were building a new track, which current track would you use as a template?
Marlin: Homestead would be a good template to use. They have really fixed that track up nice.
Rudd: If I were building a race track I’d use Richmond as my template.
Craven: Dover International Speedway. I just think we need more pure, one-mile ovals on the circuit. I love the place. The fact that I usually run well there probably has a lot to do with that, but I love it.
Johnson: I would pick something like Lowe’s Motor Speedway, Dover and New Hampshire — tracks that I’ve had success on so I would have a better chance at winning some more races. In a perfect world I’d have them build an off-road track. I miss competing in those races and don’t really have an opportunity to with the schedule the way it is right now.
Sadler: For the fans I’d have to say Bristol. For the drivers, I love Atlanta, Vegas, Texas and Darlington.
Newman: If I could build a brand new Darlington, that’s what I’d build because it’s my favorite track we race at.
Martin: Lowe’s Motor Speedway. A lot of the other tracks have tried to copy it, but it’s my favorite track to race at. I just like the style of racing there. It’s a driver’s kind of track. Handling, especially in the corners, is key, and that suits my style of racing.
If you could eliminate a track, which would it be?
Rudd: Nothing jumps out in my mind right now. I enjoy all the tracks.
Newman: Daytona or Talladega because restrictor-plate racing isn’t fun for any of us out there.
Sadler: I would have to go with Martinsville, I’ve struggled there my whole career.
Johnson: I’m not sure I’d eliminate any of the tracks we race on. Each track is different, and they all offer their own challenges, so I really like most of the tracks we race on.
If you had to start an ill-handling car and the only hope you had at a win was dependent on your talent and driving skill, at which track would you be able to make up the most? At which track would you not have a shot at all?
Newman: I’d be at a disadvantage at restrictor-plate tracks, but all the rest, I’d say I’d have a shot at. Especially, if the car isn’t handling well, you’d want a track you can win on fuel. The ALLTEL team is good at calculating fuel, so I’d have a good shot at Chicago, Pocono, Michigan.
Rudd: At this day and time, I don’t care who you are, you can’t overcome a car that is not driving correctly. There are just too many good cars out there to be able to do that. If you go back four or five years ago the track would probably be Bristol. There were different lines around the race track and some things that you could change that might make up a little bit for an ill-handling car, but today you aren’t going to win with an ill-handling car.
Craven: I think Rockingham is probably the track where I could make up the most. I’ve had a lot of success there, and I seem to be able to get up on that high line and make up a lot of positions when I need to. I don’t seem to have a lot of luck at Homestead Speedway, but I do like the way they reconfigured the place, so maybe my luck will change there in the next couple of years.
Sadler: Well, if you can’t fix a car at certain tracks everyone is wasting each other’s time. Crew chiefs are experienced enough to where if the driver is complaining about something it is up to the driver and crew chief to come up with something that will fix the car. You can’t ever just give up.
Johnson: Lowe’s Motor Speedway for the win. For some reason I can really get around that track.
At which track does the X-Factor come into play for you? The X-Factor being a combination of luck and being at the right place at the right time.
Rudd: That statement applies to any given race on the (Nextel) Cup circuit today. And that is what really determined the winner in many cases — the pit strategy on fuel and tires. That’s really what has won quite a few races this year.
Johnson: I think all the tracks require the X-factor. Just look at Bill Elliott in Miami last season. Look at the fuel mileage races we’ve had this year. With the new ‘Lucky Dog’ policy, the X-factor is at every race. For you to have a strong finish these days, I think the X-factor plays a part in about 90 percent of the races. Anything can happen out there and a lot of it is out of your control.
Sadler: Every track. Anything can happen at any time, man. You can be running first and be taken out by a lapped car or a blown tire. That has happened to me and it sucks, but sometimes it works in the other direction.
Newman: It could be at any track really. I’ve had days I came from two laps to win. That was at Dover last year, and then Chicago I went on and won on fuel.
Darlington losing its Labor Day race, rock music instead of country music on the pre-race shows, millions and millions of dollars to run a full-time team. All this has sparked debate over how to balance the growth of NASCAR with the tradition of NASCAR. In your eyes, how does this sport continue to grow while staying pure to its roots?
Craven: I think that more prime time, Saturday night races is one way to continue the growth. I also think that we should follow the NFL’s lead and have a special weeknight race, maybe on Wednesday nights. I mean, NASCAR used to race three or four times a week back in the early days, so if the goal is to stay true to the roots of the sport while also growing the sport, that would be an ideal way to do that. I think the ratings would be tremendous for something like that.
Johnson: That’s the billion dollar question right now. NASCAR is doing a good job of trying to balance the old and the new. There is no way that you can please everyone in this situation. But just like other major league sports, in order for NASCAR to continue to grow and gain new fans and please our committed fans, we need to continue to evolve as a sport. We can’t stay the same, so NASCAR is working hard to make the right moves and not make drastic changes.
Sadler: As long as it stays a family sport and the most accessible sport in the world then we will always be staying close to our roots. We need to make sure we get new fans — they might be kids who listen to rock groups or whatever. We can remain close to the roots but escape stereotypes that racing is redneck or Southern. It’s much more than that.
Newman: Let’s face it, NASCAR is a business and if a business is going to survive, it needs to cater to the people that are buying into it. I feel like the sport itself is the tradition, but what drives it now is the sponsors and the demographics of the fans.
Martin: I’m just a race car driver. I show up each week and race; all of that other stuff is really out of my hands. All I can do is my part to help put on the best show possible for the fans.
Is 36 too many races? Would 30 be better? Theoretically, that’s a 16 percent decrease in revenue. Would you be willing to accept a 16 percent cut for fewer races?
Johnson: Yes. 36 or actually 38 races are too much. The drivers have it easy; it’s the crew guys that have it really tough. These guys work seven days a week, 13 to 15 hours a day and aren’t at home with there families. We have them going coast to coast and really take a lot away from them and take the balance away in their lives. I think that we should trim the schedule down and allow for more time at home for everyone. NASCAR has the longest professional sports season out there and I think that needs to change.
Rudd: I started my Winston Cup career when there were 28 races. I liked 28 races a lot better than I like 36. I’m not saying that we can’t handle more. It’s just that you would have a little more time for your personal life.
Sadler: No, 36 is cool. Actually it’s 38 if you count the Budweiser Shootout and the Nextel Cup All-Star Challenge. We are racers, and I’d race every day if you’d let me.
Newman: The number of races isn’t so bad, it’s the days away from home. If we could have the same amount of races, but make it a two-day show, that would be great.
What safety features does NASCAR need to implement?
Newman: I’m not going to make any decisions for NASCAR. They’ve been doing a great job listening to what the drivers have to say and work on those issues. We’ve come a long way in the last few years on safety, and it will get better.
Sadler: I’m a big guy — 6'2". Me, Dale Jarrett and Michael Waltrip are the biggest drivers on the circuit. I think that escape hatch will be good when it gets cleared. Hopefully I will never need to use it, but I think an alternative to getting out of the car besides the window would be helpful.
Johnson: I would like to see a traveling safety crew. I know that NASCAR is looking into this and I understand its reasoning as to why they have the current system. But for me and my family to know that the safety crew that might need to help me one day knows everything about me each week and I personally know them, that’s very important.
Rudd: I think NASCAR is looking at pretty much everything they need to look at right now. The one thing I would like to see them do is look at maybe getting the driver away from the left side door cage a little bit. Maybe locate the driver so many inches off the centerline of the driveshaft to get him out of the left side window. Maybe that will help prevent some of the injuries when the driver’s side smacks the wall.
Is the racing back to the yellow rule being handled correctly?
Newman: The first race NASCAR put the new rule into effect, I won. I got lucky, but I also had to gain one more lap before winning. I think the rule is good and NASCAR will work on it more and more.
Sadler: I think 13 seconds after the car stopped tumbling there was a safety worker talking to me through the window (at Talladega). That was also a good effort on the 42 other drivers on the track for slowing down to allow the safety crews to get to me.
Johnson: I think NASCAR is doing a good job with it. Things had to change because it was just a matter of time before someone got injured from racing back to the yellow. I’m not sure about the ‘Lucky Dog’ rule. It’s hard for the racer in us to see someone get a free pass, but as time goes on we’ll get everything worked out.
Rudd: I like the rule. I think it needs some adjusting on the shorter tracks a little bit where you have so many caution flags. At the end of the race virtually everyone is on the lead lap.
Should there be a traveling safety crew?
Martin: I wish there was.
Sadler: I think there needs to be a traveling medical crew. If I end up in the infield care center, it’s good that I know the person looking over me and they know me.
Rudd: I would say that before the new rules that NASCAR has on racing back to the flag, that we definitely needed a crew every week that was familiar with the rules. Today, it would still be nice knowing that you had people coming to your car that knew how to deal with your particular needs or knew about your previous injuries. That would be nice. But with not racing back to the flag, it has freed up how quickly they can move the safety crews. I think that all any driver wants to see is, when they have an accident, that you are going to have somebody there pretty quickly.
Newman: Most definitely. NASCAR has a traveling chef, why not a safety crew?
Should there be a yellow and/or red light on the dash board?
Rudd: I think some other series use that situation. I haven’t really seen a big need for that. Currently in Winston Cup with the rule change we don’t race back to the flag. If there is a problem and the caution flag comes out people slow down. It’s working real smooth right now. I really haven’t seen a need for a light on the dashboard.
Sadler: No, not necessarily. It might be too much of a distraction — I’d have to try it. My spotter Brett is 100 percent on his game. As long as he is paying attention, and I am paying attention I think we can avoid accidents with accidents.
Martin: That would be a nice addition.
Newman: I don’t think so.
What are some things (away from racing) you have been given the opportunity to do because of your position as a NASCAR driver?
Newman: Last year’s trip to NASA was about one of the coolest things I’ve done.
Martin: To be able to do all the charity things we have done over the years — it’s always a good feeling to give something back. We have the greatest fans in the world in this sport and it’s not always easy, but it’s always great to be able to help out charities and people in need of assistance.
Sadler: Gosh, too many to count. I’ve been to The Final Four, NBA games, MLB games, met celebrities like Carmen Electra, Serena and Venus Williams, the band Three Doors Down, WWE Wrestlers, and been in my buddy Blake Shelton’s country music video, Ol’ Red. I also get to travel in planes and cool cars. I’m real, real fortunate.
Johnson: I’ve thrown out the first pitch at a Phillies vs. Braves game, stood on the sidelines at a Georgia Tech (football) game, been able to get dinner reservations, meet actors and other celebrities. Just do things that you would never have guessed in a thousand years. I have the best job in the world that offers me a lot of benefits.
Rudd: A good example for me, I’ve always been an aviation sort of nut. I’m a pilot myself and having the U.S. Air Force associated with our car has given us a lot of opportunities to visit a lot of bases, to see a lot of the state of the art sort of equipment, visit with the Thunderbirds, things like that that I would not have had the opportunity to do otherwise.
Craven: The biggest thing that the notoriety of being a NASCAR driver has done for me is to allow me to put on my annual Snowmobile Charity Ride up in Maine. We’ve been fortunate to be able to raise a lot of money and help a lot of people. I can’t ask for anything better than that. I’ve been lucky to meet a lot of stars and go a lot of places during my time in the sport, but giving something back is the coolest thing being a NASCAR driver has allowed me to do.
Who was your favorite driver growing up? How has he influenced your driving style or how you conduct yourself at the track?
Rudd: I didn’t really have a favorite driver. I was always busy racing myself since I was about eight years old running go-karts and motorcycles. But I guess I did watch the Indy 500 and I remember watching A.J. Foyt. I remember Dan Gurney from road racing being a kid watching some of the races that came on ABC. I remember those guys, Gurney and Foyt, from when I was young. But I didn’t really follow the races that heavily because I was busy racing myself.
Sadler: My uncle Bud Elliott, my brother Hermie Sadler and Dale Earnhardt. They showed me how to be successful but stay real.
Craven: I really idolized Richard Petty when I was growing up. He served as a great example of how to handle yourself in the heat of the moment. He always had a smile for the camera, even after he might have just gotten wrecked on the track. Whenever I’m in a similar situation, I always try to remember how well he handled himself. I don’t always succeed in living up to the precedent he set, but I do try.
Johnson: I started out in motocross and Rick Johnson was a guy I looked up to. I also followed Rick Mears, since he was from California, thinking I’d take the same path from off-road to Indy cars. In stock cars, I was a Cale Yarborough fan. I also followed the Allisons and Dale Earnhardt. I had always wanted to race against Dale Earnhardt, and I’m sorry I missed the opportunity. As far as what I’ve taken from them, I would say that I’ve taken from them the desire to win and the work ethic. These guys wanted to win every time they got on the track and so do I.
Martin: Richard Petty. He is and always will be the greatest ambassador of our sport.
Newman: I always admired Dale Earnhardt for his way of mentally beating people before the race even started.
If you had to choose one driver to be NASCAR’s spokesman to America, who would it be?
Sadler: I think Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett are excellent spokesmen for the sport.
Martin: Jeff Gordon.
Newman: I don’t know if there is just one. Jeff Gordon’s made a good name for himself, but there’s a lot of guys out there.
Craven: I think Jeff Gordon has done a great job of being a spokesperson for NASCAR. He handles himself extremely well in interviews, and he’s a very intelligent, well-spoken guy. I think he helps to dispel a lot of the stereotypes that some of the country might have about our sport. He’s a hard guy to dislike, I think. I mean, he’s young, he’s a good-looking guy, and he’s very articulate.
Marlin: Rusty (Wallace) would be entertaining as a spokesperson. He’d be honest.
When you came into the sport, who took you under their wing?
Martin: Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison.
Johnson: This isn’t going to surprise anyone, but when I got into Winston Cup Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick really took me under their wings. Jeff has taught me a lot about racing both on and off the track. Both Rick and Jeff have taught me a lot about the business side of the sport and how to deal with the pressures and what it takes to be a winner. I’ve been fortunate to get in with a tremendous organization and have a very supportive sponsor in Lowe’s.
Newman: Buddy Baker.
Marlin: No one really took me under their wing; I had been around racing so much already because of my dad that I knew everybody. It wasn’t like I was first starting.
Sadler: Dale Jarrett as a matter of fact. He and I were testing at Darlington — he in a Cup car and me in a Busch car. I went to him for advice on how to get around the ‘Lady In Black’ and he pretty much dropped everything, put me in a rental car and drove me around the track for 30 minutes. It’s cool because I won my first pole there in 2003. DJ and I have been tight ever since. I’ll never forget that.
Craven: Jeff Gordon really took me under his wing, even though I’m older than he is. He had already had a couple of years in Winston Cup before I moved up in 1995. When I joined Hendrick Motorsports, he really taught me the right way to do a lot of things. I really treasure his friendship, and the way he’s always been willing to help me. Among the drivers, he’s probably the one I’m closest to.
What other drivers or crew chiefs would you want to play poker against? Which would you not?
SadIer: I wouldn’t want to play with my own crew chief, Todd Parrott. He has too good of a poker face. Also, Matt Borland and Ryan Newman — forget it man.
Newman: I don’t know, but I can tell you, you don’t want to play against my crew chief Matt Borland. He’s a good poker player who actually competes in tournaments when we’re not racing.
Craven: Well, let me think. First, Mike Helton. I know he’s not a driver or a crew chief, but I think he’d make one heck of a poker player. Jimmy Spencer, just because he’d make for an entertaining game. Matt Borland and Ryan Newman would make for a good game, because of how analytical and intelligent they are.
It’s said that the difference between a man and a boy is the size of his toys. What are some of your favorite toys?
Sadler: I am not allowed to ride on motorcycles. My mom won’t let me. I have a pontoon boat and in my motorcoach I have two Xbox’s and a karaoke machine.
Craven: I love my snowmobiles and my Sea Ray boat. I love getting out on Moosehead Lake in Maine first thing in the morning on the Sea Ray. There’s nothing better than that. With the Snowmobiles, we have a lot of trails around Moosehead that we ride on, and we’ll just go for hours and hours on those things. It really clears my mind and recharges my batteries.
Rudd: I guess most of my toys are something I can share with my son, Landon. He is nine years old now and we enjoy doing a lot of different things, but one of the things he really enjoys is riding four-wheelers, running through the woods chasing each other. We enjoy doing that. And a little bit of go-karts; nothing real serious there. The other thing is airplanes. I enjoy aviation and because flying is a necessary part of our sport I enjoy the airplane and I enjoy the flying part of our sport.
Marlin: Some of my favorite toys are bulldozers and other farming equipment.
Newman: I’ve got a Ranger 520 Bass Boat, wave runners. I’ve got a 1928 Ford Roadster with a 1953 Ford engine that has dual 94 Stromsburg carburetors, Offenhauser heads, and a 1957 Ford 3-speed transmission. I have a 1953 Plymouth with the original flathead six cylinder and a 1957 Ford Thunderbird (one of Krissie’s favorites) with a numbers matching 312 engine and automatic transmission.
Johnson: I have a 36-foot Fountain boat, a couple of motorized bar stools that will go about 40 mph and a Harley-Davidson fatboy. We’re so busy I hardly have time to use them, but they’re great when I can.
Martin: Well, they’re not toys but my Citation Jet and my Vantari motor home. I’m very proud of both.
Do you play NASCAR video games? Do they ever help you prepare for a track?
Newman: I used to play them more, but definitely. I feel I’ve learned a lot about Darlington and Bristol by playing the NASCAR game.
Sadler: Yes, tons. I play EA Sports NASCAR Thunder 2004 all the time. It helped me get used to the new Homestead-Miami Speedway configuration before we got on the track.
Johnson: Yes, I play a lot of the games. The 2004 EA Sports NASCAR Thunder is pretty realistic. When I first came into the series, I played a lot of the games to experience the track and see what they were like. It helps a little in giving you the feel for what it will look like.
Martin: No. I leave all the video games to my son Matt.
What would be more entertaining: 43 NASCAR drivers playing Augusta National or 43 PGA golfers shooting it out at Bristol?
Craven: The 43 PGA Golfers at Bristol would be more entertaining to watch, but it would be a very short race. You could probably make a lot of money off the scrap metal that would be left over, though.
Johnson: I would say the golfers in Bristol. There is no way people would want to see me golf. I can play about seven or eight holes and then it’s off to the clubhouse.
Sadler: As much of a golf fan I am, I have to go with Bristol. Its heaven on earth. Those PGA Golfers need to try it out sometime.
Martin: 43 PGA golfers shooting it out at Bristol.
What is your favorite sport other than racing?
Marlin: My favorite sport other than racing is football. I love watching the Tennessee Vols play every week.
Newman: I watch hockey only because my wife Krissie is a Devils fan, but I really don’t like or watch other sports. I like watching fishing shows mostly.
Craven: Hockey is a lot of fun for me to watch. Growing up in New England, Hockey was one of the biggest things around. I was never very good at it, but the game has a lot of speed and excitement, which appeals to me for obvious reasons.
Sadler: Golf and deer hunting.
Who is your favorite athlete outside racing?
Craven: Carlton Fisk, the Boston Red Sox catcher. Being from Maine, the BoSox were everything to me as a kid as far as baseball was concerned, and Fisk was just such a strong player.
Sadler: Too many to name. I am a sports nut so I have favorites in every sport.
Martin: Michael Jordan. We shot a Gatorade Commercial with him a while back and he is great.
Do you have any crazy rituals or superstitions for race day?
Craven: I always try to carry something in my car that my kids (Riley, age 11 and Everett, age 7) have given me. My daughter even knows how much luck each good luck charm has in it. One time, I was in a wreck, and I told Riley that the good luck charm must have run out of luck. She said, “No daddy, that one still has at least two more races worth in it.”
Sadler: I don’t really, but I just do the same thing every week. Get lots of rest, drink a ton of water and Powerade, and breathe pure oxygen. A lot of resting and relaxing.
Newman: Not a one.
Johnson: No. I used to be superstitious, but now I just try to stay focused.
What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done on the track?
Sadler: Probably that little helmet toss in the Winston a few years back. I was mad at Ryan Newman because he wrecked me. It cost me a little bit of money when I got fined by NASCAR, and I also felt bad for all my sponsors at the time for acting like that.
Marlin: I can’t remember the exact year, it was 1976 or 1977 at Nashville. I had won the pole and we started the pace lap and I ran out of gas. I thought the crew guys had put the fuel in it and they thought I had put the fuel in it. I coasted right into the fuel pump and put about five gallons in and went back out there.
What track, NASCAR sanctioned or not, do you consider your home track?
Sadler: South Boston. That is where I grew up. I won a track championship, and they have a grandstand named after me. Richmond is my home track on the NASCAR circuit.
Newman: IRP (Indianapolis Raceway Park) — maybe since I’m from South Bend. I raced there a lot in open-wheel.
Martin: Daytona, because that’s where we live now.
If not for racing, what would you be doing now?
Sadler: I’d be working in the family business or playing ball somewhere.
Martin: I'm just not sure.
Johnson: I’d be a fireman. Growing up I use to live next door to a fireman and have always wanted to be one. I’m not really sure what draws me to it. It might be the sense of being on the edge and trying to control something that isn’t controllable, but who knows.
Newman: Fishing, of course.
Michelle Williams is going to play Marilyn Monroe in an upcoming movie. We're not exactly sure why. Yes, she's a pretty good actress, but can she pull off the sultry, steamy sexiness that Marilyn exuded? We have yet to see it.
Michelle discusses her new role in the new issue of Vogue.
The movie, titled My Week With Marilyn, is set to hit theaters in November of 2011, also stars the ultra sexy Emma Watson. We know she's British, but we think Emma Watson exudes more of Marilyn's iconic sexiness than Michelle Williams. We wonder who Joe DiMaggio would have chosen to play the love of his life if he were still alive. The Yankee Clipper probably would have asked if Jayne Mansfield was available. And that would be an awkward conversation. (This is the last time we try to imagine how dead celebrities would answer questions 10 years after their death.)
By Mark Ross
On Aug. 11, 1994, major league baseball players walked off the field and started what ended up being a seven-month work stoppage that resulted in the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years. Games resumed the following April, but the fans didn't return. Attendance dropped 20 percent during the 1995 season and it took nearly a decade for average attendance to approach it's pre-strike level. Fast forward to the present and with a reported $7.1 billion in gross revenue in 2010, a 400% increase compared to 1995, it's fair to say that America's favorite pastime has since rebounded. However, the point is this: it took some time and there were certainly some "growing pains" along the way.
So let's contrast that to the NFL, or what is affectionately known as America's game. With estimated revenue of $9 billion in 2010, the NFL is clearly king among the four major sports when it comes to TV viewership, game attendance and corporate involvement. But the NFL is coming off of a work stoppage of its own that just ended in early August with the official ratification of a new CBA by both the owners and players. Only one preseason game was lost to the work stoppage, but there was plenty of frustration, disbelief and anger expressed by football fans across the country as the labor negotiations dragged on through the summer and were covered ad nauseam by every medium that exists. The question then becomes would a summer's worth of discontent translate to any sort of fan-led lockout once the games started?
The answer — not so much. Compared to Week 1 of last season, opening week attendance numbers were pretty much equal. Last year, more than 1.09 million fans attended games in the opening week. This past Thursday, Sunday and last night, about 1.08 million fans were in attendance in stadiums across the country, according to numbers found on ESPN.com. The total difference between the past two opening weeks is less than 11,000.
Eight teams — Chicago, Houston, Jacksonville, Kansas City, New York Jets, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Washington — hosted Week 1 games each of the past two seasons. Of those eight, only three of them (Jacksonville, Kansas City and Washington) drew fewer fans this season compared to last. Tampa Bay was the only team that didn't sell enough tickets to prevent a local TV blackout for its opening game, although it did draw more than 4,000 fans this season compared to last.
And speaking of TV, the NFL and ESPN announced a new agreement last week that keeps "Monday Night Football" on ESPN for the next decade and also will increase the number of NFL-related shows on the network. The agreement, which officially begins in 2014, has ESPN reportedly paying the NFL $1.9 billion per year, up from the current $1.1 billion. Further, NBC's opening "Sunday Night Football" broadcast of the Dallas Cowboys-New York Jets game two nights ago set a record as the series' highest-rated game ever and earned the best ratings for a Week 1 game broadcast on a Sunday or Monday night in 15 years.
Overall, the NFL is estimating that it will take in $9.5 billion in revenue during the regular season, including a 15 percent increase in sponsorship revenue. So it appears that fans, TV viewers and corporate America all have put the lockout behind them and returned to the game they love. In fact, according to this Associated Press article, the return of the NFL acts as its own stimulus program for the national economy in and of itself. Clearly, it is good to be the king.
What was sorely missing from the Colts shellacking at the hands of the Texans on Sunday was the camera cutting to a dejected, neck halo-wearing Peyton Manning. This game would have been much, much more entertaining if the camera kept showing Peyton Manning in the owner's booth, trying to stay as calm as possible and not rip the bolts out of his head. Since we don't have that shot, here are a few images of what Peyton Manning probably looks like right now.
An artist's rendition of Peyton Manning in his neck halo:
Ron Jaworski accidentally said the word "shit" during the live broadcast of the Patriots at Dolphins Monday Night Football game last night. Chad Henne missed a pass down the right sideline and as Ron was breaking down the mistake that Henne made, he let the s-word slip out. The transcript of what Jaws said was:
"That was one Chad would love to have back. He knew he had the one-on-one matchup going down the right sideline. Shit, you have to get rid of this ball just a split second quicker. You'll see it here."
Ron has apologized, but does anyone really care? In fact, if I'd like to see more swearing during broadcasts instead of less. In this day and age of reality TV, I'd like to hear what these commentators really think, in the language they would use if they were sitting in a locker room. I think it would probably sound something like this:
"Chad Henne is a piece of $&%# quarterback who will never lead the @&%#$% Dolphins anywhere. Can you believe this %&#@ is actually a %!*%$* NFL Quarterback? What %*%#@(% gave him a job? That %&@$* should be %&^#(@ fired right &^$(%&@ now. Back to you Mike."
NFL players are known for being tough, aggressive and violent people who will sacrifice their bodies to win at any cost. Emo kids, on the other hand, will sit in their room and cry if their mom doesn't buy them the right kind of organic tea. So, we wondered what it would look like if we combined the two using very poor Photoshop techniques.
1. Tony Romo as an Emo Kid
2. Peyton Hillis as an Emo Kid
3. Drew Brees celebrating the Super Bowl win as an Emo Kid
4. Philip Rivers as an Emo Kid
5. Aaron Rodgers as an Emo Kid
6. Tim Tebow as an Emo Kid (back when he was a Gator, and was in Fall Out Boy)
7. Bill Belichick as an Emo Kid (Probably listening to Fall Out Boy)
8. Peyton Manning as an Emo Kid
9. Clay Matthews as an Emo Kid
10. Tom Brady as an Emo Kid (it was temping to leave this one not photoshopped)
We take a look at some of the top storylines from Week One of the NFL's 2011 season.
Cutler, Bears Make Early Statement Against the Falcons
Now that’s how you bounce back from Wuss-gate. Jay Cutler, last seen making the now-patented Cutler Face from the sidelines in the NFC Championship game loss to Green Bay after an injury, dissected the Falcons defense in a 30–12 rout of Atlanta at Soldier Field. Cutler threw for 312 yards and a pair of scores, one of them a 56-yard screen pass to Matt Forte, in vastly outshining flavor-of-the-month Matt Ryan.
As usual, the Bears defense got in on the act, as Brian Urlacher grabbed a Ryan fumble on one of the Bears’ five sacks and took it 12 yards for a touchdown to cap Chicago’s scoring. Cutler is still Cutler — he threw a pick-six to reality hubby Kroy Biermann to make the score a little more respectable — but only one of these teams looked like a Super Bowl contender, and it wasn’t the trendy Falcons.
“Big confidence booster for us as a football team,” said receiver Roy Williams. “We knew what we can do offensively. We knew what we can do defensively. But to put it together, especially against a good football team in Atlanta, shows what kind of football team we have.”
Colts Look Lost Without Manning
Miss Manning much? The Colts looked utterly helpless without their field general and coach on the field, falling behind 34–0 at halftime to Houston before the Texans emptied the bench and coasted to a 34–7 win. It was Indy’s worst loss since a 27-point loss to Jacksonville in 2006, but this one felt different from your garden variety blowout.
Indy looked like Directional U showing up in Tuscaloosa to absorb a beating and pick up a paycheck. The Colts lured Kerry Collins out of retirement but might want to coax him back into it; Collins fumbled on consecutive first-quarter snaps, setting up Texans touchdowns, and he never looked comfortable against Wade Phillips’ aggressive 3-4 defense. Afterwards, receiver Reggie Wayne tried to encourage his teammates by reminding them that the Texans also beat the Colts in last year’s opener before normalcy returned to both franchises.
“I just told them: ‘We’re going to be all right. It’s a long season and there’s no reason to worry,’” Wayne said. “We were in the same position last year and we still accomplished our goal and that’s taking care of our division.” Sorry, Reggie. Things are different now. With Manning sidelined, the road to the AFC South title now runs through Houston.
Cam Newton Has Historic Debut
Sure, it was the Arizona Cardinals, not exactly the ’85 Bears. But Cam Newton silenced a boatload of doubters with a record-setting performance in his NFL debut. Newton became the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for 400-plus yards in his debut, completing 24-of-37 passes for 422 yards and two touchdowns. Alas, the outcome was a 28–21 road loss — this is still the Panthers, after all — but Newton could be the spark that energizes a moribund franchise.
“He was everything everybody didn’t expect him to be,” said Steve Smith, who caught eight of Newton’s passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns, including a 77-yarder. “He was on point, he made some great runs, he made some great reads, made some fantastic throws. He made some throws out there that honestly as a receiver it made it easy to catch them.”
The game’s other ballyhooed rookie, former LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson, provided the decisive points for the Cardinals with an 89-yard punt return but was repeatedly victimized by his former college nemesis. “I told you guys from the beginning that he is a great athlete and is definitely going to be one of the greats in this league,” Peterson said. Maybe, maybe not. But he was great on Sunday.
Eagles Living the Dream
The Vince Young-proclaimed Dream Team made Week One a nightmare for the St. Louis Rams in beating them 31–13. Not only did Michael Vick dazzle, scrambling for 98 yards and throwing for two touchdowns despite completing fewer than half of his passes, but the Eagles also turned the Rams sideline into a MASH unit.
Quarterback Sam Bradford and running back Steven Jackson — in other words, the entire Rams offense — left the game with injuries, as did leading returning receiver Danny Amendola, cornerback Ron Bartell and tackle Jason Smith.
But the story of the day was the Philly playmakers, who did what they do. LeSean McCoy rushed for 122 yards and a touchdown, and DeSean Jackson caught six passes for 102 yards and a score. Still, the highest-profile member of the Philly offensive triplets was far from satisfied. “I’m thankful for the victory, don't get me wrong,” Vick said. “I just wish it could have been a little cleaner.” If Vick stays this hungry in pursuit of perfection, he might make Vince Young’s dreams come true.
Ravens Dominate Steelers
On a day when the theme was Never Forget, the Steelers may never forget the colossal beatdown they received at the hands of their bitterest rivals. Baltimore pummeled its AFC North nemesis, forcing seven turnovers and rushing for 170 bruising yards, a staggering number against a Dick LeBeau defense.
Ray Rice ran for 36 yards on his first touch, a sign of things to come on a day when Rice amassed 149 yards rushing and receiving and scored two touchdowns, breaking the hearts of fantasy owners everywhere who held him out against the vaunted Steelers defense.
The Ravens were the team with the dominant defense, as Haloti Ngata forced a fumble and caused an interception, and Ed Reed grabbed two errant Ben Roethlisberger throws. “We got beat into submission,” said a humbled James Farrior. It’s only one game, but it did a lot to erase the sting of last year’s playoff loss to these same Steelers. “That playoff taste? Now it’s over,” Rice said. “They beat us in the playoffs, all right. We got that burden off our shoulders, boom, we’re one up on them.” Only one up, but right now, the Ravens are miles ahead.
Does something about this fantasy football team's score seem odd? Defense/ST usually don't put up over 3,500 points in a decade, let alone a single game. In this team, the commissioner meant to set the defense scoring at 1 points for every 25 return yards. But he inverted it and set it at 25 points for every 1 return yard.
Needless to say he got more than a few panicked text messages after Thursday's Packers-Saints game.
By RALPH VACCHIANO
Six months ago, there was no guarantee this would ever happen. Yet here we finally are, in opening week. The lockout scared everyone and threatened take away football, but in the end the NFL hasn’t missed a beat.
In fact, it sure looked just as exciting as ever on Thursday night when the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers opened with a thrilling, 42-34 win over the New Orleans Saints and Lambeau Field. The action figures to be just as thrilling on Sunday, especially in these five big and interesting Week 1 games:
PITTSBURGH STEELERS AT BALTIMORE RAVENS
The Steelers will win if… they get RB Rashard Mendenhall going early. Roethlisberger is often the difference in these games (he’s beaten the Ravens seven straight times) but the best way to keep the Ravens’ pass rush off him is to soften it by pounding the ball on the ground. If Mendenhall gets going, the Steelers have plenty of passing weapons to make the Ravens pay.
The Ravens will win if… they get their own passing attack going. Joe Flacco hasn’t had much success against the Steelers, but he has plenty of weapons with Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin and Lee Evans. He’s poised for a breakout year, too.
What probably will happen: Forget all the points these two put up in the playoffs, this still has the makings of a defensive battle where they slug it out on the ground. The Steelers are more equipped for that kind of game.
Prediction: Steelers 17, Ravens 13
ATLANTA FALCONS AT CHICAGO BEARS
The Falcons will win if… they rattle Jay Cutler. In their playoff loss to the Packers, the Falcons couldn’t get near Aaron Rodgers. Cutler is more vulnerable, and he’s shaky enough that he could be thrown off his game if he’s forced to run.
The Bears will win if… they run the ball effectively with Matt Forte, which won’t be easy if Marion Barber misses the game. Forte can be boom or bust sometimes, but he needs to be more of a grinder to keep the Falcons’ high-powered offense off the field.
What probably will happen: The Falcons loaded up on a pretty good team this offseason and they’re ready to show off all their weapons. Matt Ryan, Roddy White, rookie Julio Jones and Michael Turner will be way too much for the Bears defense.
Prediction: Falcons 31, Bears 14
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS AT HOUSTON TEXANS
The Colts will win if… they figure out a way to really run the ball and protect QB Kerry Collins. This is a team in trouble without Peyton Manning, so they need to scale back to a very basic offensive attack. No more wide-open passing game. Collins has a big arm, but can make the big mistake. Plus he’s not as young as he used to be.
The Texans will win if… they turn this into an offensive shootout, which they are perfectly capable of doing. With running back Arian Foster, quarterback Matt Schaub and receiver Andre Johnson, they can put up points in bunches. If they do that early, Collins won’t be able to keep up.
What probably will happen: The Colts will be better than most people think without Manning, but this is too tough a test right off the bat. At some point, Collins will throw an untimely interception that will set the Texans off on an unstoppable run.
Prediction: Texans 37, Colts 20
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES AT ST. LOUIS RAMS
The Eagles will win if… Michael Vick picks up where he left off. He was the NFL’s most unstoppable weapon last season. He could throw on the run, run on his own, or sit in the pocket and dissect defenses. The Rams’ defense is improving, but if Vick is on, it won’t be pretty.
The Rams will win if… they turn up the heat on Vick. Pressure is a specialty of defensive-minded coach Steve Spagnuolo. His offense can score, but he’s got to stop Vick and the best way to do that is make him move out of the pocket. Sometimes that doesn’t help, but better that than letting him sit in the pocket with plenty of time.
What probably will happen: The Eagles didn’t really click like a “Dream Team” should in the preseason, but they are still pretty loaded on offense. It may take a while and it may not be pretty, but eventually they’ll get it going. Vick will find a way to make it work.
Prediction: Eagles 24, Rams 20
OAKLAND RAIDERS AT DENVER BRONCOS
The Raiders will win if… Darren McFadden stays healthy and the Raiders lean on him. The Broncos defense is vulnerable and not overloaded with talent, despite John Fox’s best efforts. Their line could be pushed around and McFadden could end up with a very big night.
The Broncos will win if… they control the game with a power style of their own. This won’t be the old aerial Broncos. Kyle Orton is efficient and the Knowshon Moreno, Willis McGahee combination should be the strength of the Broncos’ offense. They may have trouble with the Raiders’ defensive line, but if they don’t they’ll have a shot.
What probably will happen: This will be the Raiders’ coming out party and McFadden will show he really is an elite running back. For a change, the Raiders really might be for real.
Prediction: Raiders 31, Broncos 14
This article originally appeared in Athlon's 2001 Big 12 college football annual.
by Mike Babcock
Eric Crouch still gets the reaction on occasion when he meets a stranger. "You're not as big as I thought you were," the stranger will say. And Crouch will resist the urge to respond, "Well, how big did you think I was? If you read the program, it tells you."
The Nebraska Cornhuskers' senior quarterback would never be so disrespectful, even to a stranger whose perception of him is somehow different from the reality. It's simply not in his character.
Crouch goes out of his way to accommodate. He understands the unique demands of his high-profile position. As the Cornhuskers' quarterback, his life is not his own. No matter where he goes, someone is always waiting to ask for something - an autograph, a handshake, a pose for a photograph. He has been stopped on his way to class. He has attracted not-so-subtle attention when he goes out to dinner with family and friends - the sideways glance, the nudge of recognition. Those things go with the territory, a responsibility he eagerly accepts.
"I'm not doing it for the respect," he says of the way in which he's embraced the attention. "I'm just doing it because you get so much support here, out of the state of Nebraska, that I feel any way I can give back to the people and my family and friends, I'm willing to do that. I understand that comes with the role and the territory."
He has been so willing to give of his time and energy that Turner Gill, Nebraska's quarterbacks coach, has discussed the matter with him, to make sure it doesn't become a distraction.
"We've all been there," says Gill, who was a three-time first-team All-Big Eight quarterback for the Cornhuskers from 1981 to 1983. "I've been there. I know exactly what he's going through.
"You (have to) give people a little bit of your time, which you do. He's done more that his share. So he doesn't have to feel guilty if he tells somebody that asks, 'Sorry, I can't do that.'"
As for the comments about his size, well, size is no longer an issue, if it ever really was. According to the program, Crouch stands 6'1" and weighs 200 pounds - his weight fluctuates some, but not enough to matter. And, more importantly, he has shown the physical toughness needed to run an option offense.
Since he became Nebraska's starting quarterback in the third game of his sophomore season, he has never missed a snap that mattered. That despite surgeries on his right shoulder after each of the last two seasons and the assorted bumps and bruises of carrying the ball 349 times.
As a sophomore, he became the first quarterback to lead the Cornhuskers in rushing since 1955, gaining 889 yards and scoring 16 touchdowns on a team-high 180 carries.
Nebraska's offense is built around Crouch, the latest in a line of option quarterbacks that began with Gill and has included Steve Taylor, Gerry Gdowski, Tommie Frazier and Scott Frost, among others.
Tom Osborne, Cornhusker coach Frank Solich's predecessor, turned to the option in the early 1980s primarily because his teams couldn't consistently win against rival Oklahoma with a pass-oriented offense (believe it or not, Nebraska led the Big Eight in passing in 1974 and 1976).
Crouch - who was born, appropriately enough, the week after Osborne's first victory against Oklahoma in 1978 - was a member of Osborne's final recruiting class in 1997. Solich has modified the offense to fit his own philosophy. But the option remains an important part of the job description.
The position has evolved to the point that Crouch is like a second I-back. When the Cornhuskers evaluate a quarterback, they look at his ability as a runner first. And Crouch is a prime example. He ran an option offense similar to Nebraska's at Omaha's Millard North High School.
"He only threw three or four times a game, if that," says Gill. "But I saw his arm strength. I saw him in (summer football) camp. And I knew he had the skills to be able to throw a football."
Nebraska's quarterback has to be able to throw well enough to keep the defense honest, and he has to be able to read defenses, an ability that's difficult to judge by observation.
Fewer and fewer programs seem to be willing to take on such an offense because of the demands on the quarterback. "I think the hard thing is to find all those (qualities)," Gill says.
It's not that high schools don't run option offenses. Many still do. But the quarterbacks tend to be smaller players, according to Gill. "5'7", 5'8", 5'9" and 165, 170 pounds. You can find those kinds of guys," he says. "But we'd like for him to be at least in that 6-foot range, somewhere around there."
Crouch possessed the requisite physical qualities and skills, plus he grew up in Omaha, less than an hour's drive from the Nebraska campus. And, he was a Cornhusker fan.
Still Nebraska took nothing for granted in recruiting Crouch, a Parade All-American, the USA Today Nebraska Player of the Year and a two-time, first-team, all-class all-state selection. He seriously considered Notre Dame and Ohio State, among many schools that recruited him. He attended camps at both schools before finally committing to the Cornhuskers.
He also took recruiting trips to Notre Dame and Ohio State, "just to give myself an opportunity and a look, so that if I liked them, I'd maybe give them a shot," he says. He tried to keep an open mind, even though "I was really leaning toward Nebraska, home state, same offense in high school.
"Being close to home and having my family here is pretty big. If I get homesick, it's an hour away. That happened quite a bit when I was a freshman. I'm glad it worked out the way it did."
Of course, once Crouch arrived at Nebraska, a new set of challenges awaited.
He wasn't the only high-profile quarterback the Cornhuskers recruited in 1997. Bobby Newcombe, the most publicized high school player in New Mexico, chose Nebraska as well.
The two were linked from the time they signed letters-of-intent, and their competition attracted unabated media attention until Crouch finally earned the job and Newcombe moved to wingback.
Newcombe played as a true freshman, switching to wingback early in the season, while Crouch elected to redshirt after Osborne gave him the choice to do that or what Newcombe did.
As it turned out, Crouch had surgery on his right foot and left knee that fall and was ready to compete with Newcombe at quarterback in the spring of 1998, following Frost's departure.
Newcombe won the job but suffered a knee injury in his first start, creating an early opportunity for Crouch, who also missed games that season because of a hamstring pull and a hip pointer. He came back wiser the following spring and matched Newcombe play-for-play. But Solich named Newcombe the starter for the 1999 opener at Iowa. The competitive Crouch was so upset by the decision that he went home to Omaha, causing Solich to make an impromptu visit there. As a result, Solich didn't participate in the Big 12 coaches teleconference and missed a speaking engagement.
"Eric really took it very hard, which was understandable," Solich told reporters.
His disappointment didn't last long. Against Iowa, Crouch ran for three touchdowns, and against California the next week, he ran for two touchdowns, threw a touchdown pass and caught a touchdown pass from Newcombe. Two days later, Solich announced that Crouch would be the starting quarterback and Newcombe would return to wingback. The Cornhuskers' quarterback controversy had ended.
Crouch will enter his senior season as a Heisman Trophy candidate, though the odds are against a running quarterback. Frazier helped lead Nebraska to back-to-back national championships and 25 consecutive victories, yet finished second to Ohio State's Eddie George for the award in 1995.
If Crouch is perceived to have a weakness, it is his passing. But Gill takes exception. "He has all the skills and all the potential there," says Gill. "He's just been unfortunate. I don't know if he's ever been 100 percent since he's been playing here."
After a second arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder following last season, Crouch will be passing pain-free, and "I like his arm strength," Gill says. "I like the things he can do throwing. He's an accurate passer. He's done a tremendous job under the circumstances. There's no question he can be the passer we know he can be, hopefully in the high 50-percent range. And we'll go from there."
Crouch never let on that the shoulder was bothering him last season. And he'd dismiss the other aches and pains associated with taking hits on nearly every down. "The bottom line, when you're running the option game, is you're including 11 guys on the play," says Gill.
"In most cases in an offensive scheme, you're only counting 10 guys. The quarterback's involved but he's not going to block or he's not going to run the football. Obviously we don't do it every play. We hand the ball off and there are 10 people involved on some plays. But there are quite a few plays where the quarterback is involved. In the option game, we don't mind our quarterback getting hit."
That's why some people are surprised when they see Crouch out of pads. The wonder how he can keep getting up after being hit by linebackers who are 30 or 40 pounds heavier.
The size questions are "strange sometimes," he says. "I used to let that get to me a little bit." But not anymore.
I think I understand what Coastal Carolina's Dave Bennett is trying to say in this really weird and bizarre press conference. But it takes this analogy a while to pay off and when it does, I'm not sure he needs to actually act out being a cat.
I've never seen Coastal Carolina play, but I may need to go back and look at some of their film because I've never seen 11 cats in college football uniforms running around a field before. But that sounds kind of cool.
Which means it's really now or never for the Houston Texans. For the last few years, the AFC South conversation has gone like this:
The Texans: "This is our year! We're really going to win the division this time!"
Peyton Manning: "No, you're not."
The Texans: "OK, Mr. Manning."
But now that Peyton has had a second surgery to make sure his neck stays fused to his body, the Texans are out of excuses. The current prognosis for Manning's season is that he will be out 2-3 months. But given the way the Colts have been so secretive about Manning's condition, it seems much more likely that Peyton wouldn't risk his career (or his neck, literally) to come back to a 4-4 team when he could hang up his cleats for the entire season and get his body back to 100% for the 2012 season.
And while no one wants to see anyone get injured, I'm sure there are more than a few quiet fist pumps going around Houston right about now. I can image all the smiling faces popping up over cubicle walls and saying, "Did you hear? Manning had another surgery!"
And the truth is, this puts all the pressure on the Texans because if they can't win it now, then when?
Everyone knows the Texans' history of high expectations unrealized. In any other division Texans' head coach Gary Kubiak would've been fired years ago. But since he kept losing to Peyton Manning he was given a long leash. It was the excuse that no one could argue with. He's Peyton Manning, of course he's going to be better than you.
But now that Manning's not there, Kerry Collins isn't an excuse. He's a guy with a gray beard who may or may not be eligible for AARP who happens to be wearing a Colts jersey.
So while this is only the first week of the season, this is a must-win for the Texans. For their own psyche. If they can't beat the Manning-less Colts, at home, after signing a top cornerback and hiring genius defensive mind Wade Philips to turn their worst defense in the league into something that doesn't resemble swiss cheese.
And while you're probably saying to yourself, "this is just the first game of the season, it can't be a 'must-win' game." And you'd be wrong.
While no they wouldn't technically be out of the playoff race at 0-1, the blow to the Texans' ego after yet another loss to the Colts would be too much for them to overcome. A loss to the Collins-led Colts wouldn't be another loss, it would become a curse. The Colts would be in their head and I'm not sure 15 more games would be enough to get them out.
As of right now, the Texans should have one of the easiest roads to becoming division champs in 2011 (the Chargers being the only team who may have an easier road.) But a loss to their bitter, division foes who should be half the team they once were (remember, the Texans have never played against a Peyton-less Colts team) could be more than the Texans could handle.
The NFL season is finally here. It kicks off tonight when the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers play host to the 2009 Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. Athlon Sports' editorial staff made its predictions in the Athlon Sports Pro Football 2011 Preview magazine, and here they are.
AFC Playoff Seeding
Ravens (5) over Texans (4)
Jets (6) over Chargers (3)
Patriots (1) over Jets (6)
Steelers (2) over Ravens (5)
Patriots (1) over Steelers (2)
NFC Playoff Seeding
Falcons (5) over Rams (4)
Saints (3) over Giants (6)
Packers (1) over Falcons (5)
Eagles (2) over Saints (3)
Packers (1) over Eagles (2)
SUPER BOWL XVLI
Packers over Patriots
1. New England Patriots
Belichick and Brady marching toward fifth Super Bowl berth.
2. New York Jets
Ryan still hungry after back-to-back trips to the AFC title game.
3. Miami Dolphins
Need more All-Pros to “take their talents to South Beach.”
4. Buffalo Bills
Gailey unveiling “hybrid” defense anchored by versatile Dareus.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Hits-burgh gunning for record ninth Super Bowl appearance.
2. Baltimore Ravens
Fans hoping this year isn’t farewell tour for Lewis and Reed.
3. Cleveland Browns
Just what curse of Cleveland sports needed, a Madden cover.
4. Cincinnati Bengals
Bungles are back; Dalton era starts now.
1. Houston Texans
Phillips bringing his 3-4 scheme south from Big D to Houston. It's all setup for Kubiak to win now.
2. Tennessee Titans
Munchak and Locker replacing Fisher and Young in Music City.
3. Indianapolis Colts
No Manning for 2-3 months means few wins for 2-3 months.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
Garrard cut just days before the season begins, MJD coming off a bum knee, it's not looking good.
1. San Diego Chargers
Possible move to L.A. a black cloud hanging over sunny San Diego.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
Will offense remain as potent without Weis calling plays?
3. Oakland Raiders
Climbing out of the Black Hole after many years of obscurity.
4. Denver Broncos
New regime of Elway and Fox has a Mile High mountain to scale.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
Super Bowl expectations for “Dream Team” assembled in Philly.
2. New York Giants
G-Men eager to put last season’s collapse and this preseason behind them.
3. Dallas Cowboys
New sheriff Garrett and healthy gunslinger Romo ready to ride.
4. Washington Redskins
Snyder and Shanahan most stubborn men in nation’s capital.
1. Green Bay Packers
Reigning champ Rodgers eyeing back-to-back title belts.
2. Detroit Lions
Motor City revving engines, eager for breakout season.
3. Chicago Bears
Egos bruised and flaws exposed by Packers in NFC title game.
4. Minnesota Vikings
Metrodome implosion symbolic of collapse as contenders.
1. New Orleans Saints
What lockout? Brees’ OTAs have Big Easy locked and loaded.
2. Atlanta Falcons
Bold draft-day moves prove Dirty Birds playing to win now.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Young Bucs older and wiser after playoff-less 10-win ’10.
4. Carolina Panthers
Newton bringing Cammy-Cam Juice and Midas touch to Charlotte.
1. St. Louis Rams
McDaniels joining Bradford for new-look Greatest Show on Turf.
2. San Francisco 49ers
Harbaugh hoping to follow Bill Walsh from Stanford to Super Bowl(s).
3. Arizona Cardinals
Paid king’s ransom in trade and contract extension for Kolb.
4. Seattle Seahawks
Hasselbeck and Tatupu leave leadership void on both sides of ball.
There are eight new head coaches in the NFL this year. Some of them have inherited great teams with a chance to win, while others, have not. Here we break down the pros and cons for each new head coach.
San Francisco 49ers: Jim Harbaugh
Previous Job: Head coach, Stanford
Pros: Like predecessor Mike Singletary, Harbaugh had a long NFL career, and that should remind his players that he knows what he’s talking about on the field. Also like Singletary, he prefers a physical, tough team. Harbaugh knows that his offense has to diversify, though, which is a lesson Singletary never seemed to learn during his time as the boss.
Cons: Singletary’s fiery personality finally resulted in him losing large pockets of the 49ers’ locker room, and Harbaugh’s not exactly a shrinking violet himself. The hope is that Harbaugh will keep the disputes out of the media better than Singletary was able to do. Harbaugh will also battle the usual concern about college coaches transitioning to the NFL game.
Final Analysis: Harbaugh took a once-solid Stanford program and brought it back to the top of college football, so he’s not unfamiliar with tradition. The Cardinal’s tradition, however, is nothing compared to the five-time Super Bowl champion franchise that now signs his checks. His West Coast offense could make quarterback Alex Smith and wide receiver Michael Crabtree breakout performers, and it helps that he’s stepped into a weak NFC West. In this division, a title is not out of the question, even for a team that may consider 8–8 a good year.
Tennessee Titans: Mike Munchak
Previous Job: Offensive line coach, Tennessee Titans
Pros: Munchak has been with the Oilers/Titans since 1982 as player and coach, impressive longevity for any job, let alone the revolving door that is the NFL. Based on early comments, Munchak may be savvy enough to be a CEO and let his coordinators do their jobs.
Cons: Yes, Munchak’s a fixture in the organization, but he’s been an offensive line coach for 14 years. He doesn’t have even a day of coordinator experience. Linemen aren’t often in the headlines for the wrong reasons, so a situation like Kenny Britt’s recurring legal problems or Chris Johnson’s contract chirping will test Munchak’s tolerance early. How he handles those issues could win or lose him the locker room quickly.
Final Analysis: Munchak may have the best job security of any coach in the NFL, given his lengthy tenure with the Titans and Bud Adams’ reluctance to part with members of the “family.” He’ll need it as the Titans try to retool around Johnson, new quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and a defense whose production fell off tremendously last year. Last place in the AFC South still seems a virtual certainty barring strange developments in Jacksonville, Houston, or even Indianapolis.
Carolina Panthers: Ron Rivera
Previous Job: Defensive coordinator, San Diego Chargers
Pros: Rivera has a superb track record as a defensive coordinator, building top-5 units in both Chicago and San Diego. The surprising part is that he ran a 4-3 with the Bears and a 3-4 while with the Chargers (No. 1 in the NFL in 2010). His work with star middle linebackers Jeremiah Trotter and Brian Urlacher suggests that he could be the perfect teacher for Carolina Pro Bowler Jon Beason.
Cons: Rivera has gone through a reported 10 head coaching interviews since 2005 and is just now receiving his first top job. While some of his opportunities may have been mere pandering to the Rooney Rule, it raises questions of what the teams who passed on him were seeing — or not seeing — in the interviews.
Final Analysis: The Panthers experienced a steep drop defensively last season, but the impotent offense bears some of the blame. Still, there were precious few playmakers on either side of the ball. Rivera brought in ex-Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott for his staff, and if anyone can get the defense performing on a high level, it’s those two.
Cleveland Browns: Pat Shurmur
Previous Job: Offensive coordinator, St. Louis Rams
Pros: Shurmur is not likely to panic upon seeing the understocked cupboard of offensive talent in Cleveland. After all, his 2010 Rams offense had a similar look to it, with a young quarterback, patchwork receiving corps and a strong running back who could find few openings. He has the complete trust of team president Mike Holmgren, who wanted a coach who could call his own offensive plays, much like Holmgren did in Seattle and Green Bay.
Cons: Shurmur is not only adjusting to the pressure faced by every rookie head coach, but he also has the eyes of a proven winner like Holmgren looking down on him from the front office. Holmgren has essentially hitched the fate of his entire executive tenure to Shurmur as well. Shurmur had only two years as a coordinator in St. Louis, and while the Rams improved slightly, they were still only 26th in the NFL in yards and points.
Final Analysis: Shurmur received credit for some of the success that Donovan McNabb achieved in Philadelphia, and that could bode well for young Colt McCoy. Unfortunately, McCoy doesn’t have McNabb’s physical gifts or receivers of much renown. Shurmur’s success will be built on how productive his offense can be, and it may need a few more tools to become a high-powered machine.
Dallas Cowboys: Jason Garrett
Previous Job: Offensive coordinator, Dallas Cowboys
Pros: Garrett’s audition as interim coach was a smashing success. His 5–3 record in the second half of 2010 is even more impressive considering that the three losses were by a total of seven points. He’s gained the trust of the entire team, not just the quarterbacks or the offense. Having a few years in the organization, he’s better equipped to handle Jerry Jones’ persistent meddling than a newcomer would be.
Cons: Garrett must be able to keep players like Martellus Bennett and Tashard Choice from popping off about playing time and other assorted issues. A divided locker room is much more difficult to rally.
Final Analysis: The Cowboys won four games with the aged Jon Kitna under center and another one with third-stringer Stephen McGee as the starter. That reflects impressively on the staff’s gameplanning abilities, and if Garrett can keep the team’s varied egos and personalities in check, the Cowboys could return to contention in the NFC East.
Denver Broncos: John Fox
Previous Job: Head coach, Carolina Panthers
Pros: Where many analysts would look at Fox and see “retread,” Broncos VP John Elway saw experience. Before last season’s disastrous 2–14 mark, Fox’s Carolina teams had never finished worse than 7–9, and of course, he’s the only new coach this season who’s been a head coach in the Super Bowl.
Cons: Fox has never been known as a coach who can develop and improve quarterbacks. This could be a problem for Denver’s passers, Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow. Another issue is one shared by all new coaches, that being the lockout. Installing new systems takes time, especially when a newcomer’s system differs so radically from his successor’s. Digging out from under the Josh McDaniels era may take time, and Fox doesn’t have as much of that as he’d like.
Final Analysis: Denver’s defense destroyed any chances they had to contend last season. The addition of Von Miller, the return of Elvis Dumervil, and Fox’s own ability to scheme will certainly help the team improve on that side. Fox may not be able to rely as much as he would like on the running game, though, with the seemingly brittle Knowshon Moreno as his main option. There’s still work to do before the Broncos challenge the Chargers and Chiefs in the West.
Minnesota Vikings: Leslie Frazier
Previous Job: Defensive coordinator, Minnesota Vikings
Pros: Frazier’s not afraid to shake up his roster. He and the team appear more than ready to get out from under the endless Brett Favre soap opera. His Vikings defenses have been in the NFL’s top 10 for the past three seasons. Last year’s defense allowed 21 points or more in Brad Childress’ final six games as the head coach, then stiffened up with Frazier in charge and allowed 21-plus points only twice in six games.
Cons: Frazier’s not afraid to shake up his roster. The Vikings are taking a chance on losing starters like Ray Edwards, Husain Abdullah, and Sidney Rice to free agency. New quarterback Donovan McNabb doesn't exactly have anybody at the wide receiver position who strikes fear in the opposition.
Final Analysis: With the Packers expecting better health, the Bears still stocking their offense, and the Lions improving fast, the Vikings appear to be bicycling on the freeway. Frazier will need instant results out of his young quarterbacks, and his stout defensive line could take some hits. Making the playoffs would be a masterful achievement with the Vikings’ transitioning roster.
Oakland Raiders: Hue Jackson
Previous Job: Offensive coordinator, Oakland Raiders
Pros: Jackson proved that he knew how to maximize this group of offensive players when he took the team from 31st to 10th in total yardage and 31st to sixth in scoring in his first season as offensive coordinator. He’s helped develop players like Joe Flacco and Chad Ochocinco, so a true breakout could soon await players like Jason Campbell and Jacoby Ford.
Cons: Jackson’s lack of head coaching experience is obvious, but even his other two stints as an offensive coordinator were in name only. The 2003 Redskins (under Steve Spurrier) and 2007 Falcons (under Bobby Petrino) fizzled offensively, to boot.
Final Analysis: The Raiders’ young offensive talent appears primed to keep on producing, especially if rookie linemen Stefen Wisniewski and Joseph Barksdale grow up fast. The defense may have some issues, though, without all-world cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and possibly without safety Michael Huff. The Raiders owned the AFC West last year (6–0), yet still failed to make the playoffs. The schedule does them no favors (Oakland plays teams from the AFC East and NFC North), but a few out-of-division wins could get the Silver and Black into the hunt for a playoff spot.
By Tom Blaz of the Recruiting Eagle
Much has been made of the major losses from the championship roster of the 2010 Auburn Tigers. With several dozen seniors and a half dozen more lost through attrition, approximately forty percent of the players that brought home the crystal ball from Arizona are gone.
Make no mistake, the Auburn staff is focused and is expecting to win every Saturday this fall. With a brutal road schedule that includes Clemson, South Carolina, Georgia, LSU, Arkansas and home games against Florida and Alabama, a repeat of the unbeaten ’11 effort is certainly a long shot.
With consensus Top-5 recruiting classes in both 2010 and 2011, the future is indeed bright in Auburn. Many of the freshman and sophomore have already made their way into the two deep depth charts. Auburn projects six seniors in its two deep and a dozen juniors, the remaining 28 either first or second year players.
Auburn has already filled more than half its 2012 recruiting class and has begun on ’13 as well. With so few upperclassman and so many blue chip recruits, don’t be surprised if the Tigers return to the BCS national championship game as early as the 2012 season.
Junior Barrett Trotter will be an important chip in 2011, leading such a young group. Trotter’s starting job may be limited to a single season as true freshman Kiehl Frazier is already knocking on the door and Elite-11 signal caller Zeke Pike arrives next season.
The 2011 Tigers are loaded with quality, but lacking on quantity. Sophomore Michael Dyer broke Bo Jackson’s freshman records a season ago and teams with speedy Junior Onterrio McCalebb. Freshman Tre Mason is the only key backup, but that will change a year from now with two blue chip recruits and transfers Mike Blakely and Corey Grant.
Emory Blake is the only link among pass catchers to the crew that was part of “Air Newton” a season ago. Redshirt freshman Trovon Reed is special and will begin to make his mark this season. A pair of true freshman, Sammie Coates and Jaylon Denson are big, fast and along with several blue chip ’12 recruits, represent the future, sooner than later.
Philip Lutzenkirchen returns as one of the top red zone threats in the nation. The versatile junior can also line up as a fullback or in the slot creating matchup nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators. Freshmen Brandon Fulse and C.J. Uzomah bring potential and intriguing size. In what is an embarrassment of riches, a pair of very talented recruits, Ricky Parks and Darrion Hutcherson join a year from now.
Four starters from a year ago are now pushing and shoving at the next level. The Tigers have cobbled together a mix of veterans and newcomers to fill their spots. A pair of seniors, returning starter Brandon Mosley and guard Jared Cooper provide veteran leadership along with junior guard John Sullen. Redshirt freshman Chad Slade managed to beat out returning senior starter A.J Greene, while true freshman Reese Dismukes showed why he was the nation’s top high school center. Five more underclassman, led by elite freshman Christian Westerman and Greg Robinson are part of the two deep.
Anytime you lose a disruptive interior force like Nick Fairley it will be hard felt. The Tigers also lost a pair off senior tackles and ends that had been part of the two deep for three seasons. Sophomore’s Jeffrey Whitaker and Kenneth Carter start on the inside; backed up by three freshmen, including blue chip tackle Gabe Wright. Auburn is also young at end with All-SEC freshman Corey Lemonier along with fellow sophomore and returning starter Nosa Equae. Watch out for #13 Craig Sanders who excelled on special teams a season ago and figures to contributed all along the line in ’12.
Like most positions on the ’12 team, Auburn with some giant shoes to fill in departed three year starters Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes. Jake Holland is the clear leader in the middle, the high school tackling machine earned invaluable experience a season ago. Converted safety Daren Bates starts on the outside, the junior is the small fast type that Chizik loves. Look for a breakout season from senior Eltoro Freeman, who for now, backs up all three spots.
Cornerback and all-conference kick returner Demond Washington is now with the Kansas City Chiefs and the top three safeties have departed. Cornerback Neiko Thorpe returns to start for a third season, but he now lines up at safety. Special teams demon Demetruce McNeal provides big play potential at the other safety spot. Iron Bowl hero T’Sharvan Bell is now the top cover corner with eight underclassman also listed on the depth chart. Keep an eye on #31 Trent Fisher, the walk-on safety is the son of former Tennessee Titans head coach Jeff Fisher.
A new punter and kicker for Auburn, Wes Byrum is now with the Seattle Seahawks after four seasons of clutch kicking on the Plains. Jumbo punter (6’5” 230) Steven Clark is highly regarded, as is the new kicker in the hotly recruited Cody Parkey.
For everything you want on Auburn Tigers, check out The Recruiting Eagle.
Yes, this is video of Rafael Nadal having a minor gas problem at a US Open Press Conference is juvenile. But yes, it also makes us laugh. Overdubbing fart noises will always make us chuckle.
This article about the death of the Southwestern Conference and subsequent birth of the Big 12 originally appeared in the 1995 edition of Athlon's Big Eight magazine. As Texas A&M prepares to move to the SEC, leaving the future of the Big 12 up in the air, we feel this piece is worth revisiting as history seems to be repeating itself.
By Ivan Maisel
For decades, it was difficult to determine the biggest commodity in Texas. Some said oil, others pride. Anything made in Texas, grown in Texas and, heaven knows, born in Texas, was bigger, better or prettier. That was just a fact of life.
Texas may have been one of 50 states but it had once been its own republic. That sense of self-reliance, of the belief that Texans didn't join the union so much as merge with it, lasted for most of this century. A Texan's biscuits always came out of the oven fluffy.
An old joke:
Q: Do you think the recession will have political repercussions in Texas?
A: Son, we don't have a recession in Texas. I'll admit, however, that our boom is worse than it's been in a good while.
That air of superiority could be seen in the state's institutions, one after the other built from nothing. Neiman-Marcus transformed from a small storefront to retailer to the nation's wealthy. The King Ranch and others like it, immortalized in the novel and film Giant, existed almost like their own principalities.
Oilmen who struck it rich had so much money their lives had no limits. J.R. Ewing didn't live in Chicago.
You could tell a Texan, the saying went, but you couldn't tell him much, especially when it came to Southwest conference football.
"There's no question in my mind," former Texas coach Darrell Royal said in 1963, the year the Longhorns won the first of three national championships under him, "that everybody shoots for the University of Texas."
The Southwest conference churned out good players, great teams and national heroes. Slingin' Sammy Baugh and Davey O'Brien took TCU to the fore in the 1930s. Doak Walker of SMU won national Player of the Year awards in two postwar seasons and adorned the cover of Life magazine, the ancient equivalent of having your own Nike campaign.
Royal's Longhorns became perennial championship contenders in the 1960s. The decade ended with the entire nation focused on Fayetteville, Ark., where Texas and Arkansas, ranked 1-2, played for the Southwest Conference and national championship.
But now we are in the 1990s, and it seems redundant to say times have changed. Texas isn't really Texas anymore. It's just another state. part of that change came from without. Technological marvels made this country smaller.
First television, then computers, took the same message into homes from Boston to San Antonio, Seattle to Houston, Miami to Dallas. The oil and real-estate bust of the 1980s weakened Texans as if an epidemic had raged through the state. Economies of scale pushed companies to widen their markets to encompass the entire nation.
Being the best in your region, even in one as large as Texas, no longer guaranteed survival. Neiman-Marcus is owned by a New York conglomerate. Dr. Pepper, born in Dallas, is a British property. The King Ranch no longer exists. And neither, after this season will the Southwest Conference.
Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor will merge with the Big Eight to form the Big 12. Rice, SMU and TCU will join an expanded Western Athletic Conference. Houston will become part of a new league called Conference USA with 12 members, mostly city schools. Houston and five other institutions will compete for the college football championship starting in 1996. The homogenization of Texas is complete.
The reasons for the Southwest Conference's death are manifold. The 19902 began with Arkansas announcing its departure for the Southeastern Conference. In an era of college sports where the root of survival is TV, no one state, not even Texas, can generate the ratings that would provide rights fees large enough for a league to survive. When the NCAA monopolized TV rights, before 1984, the Southwest Conference and other leagues didn't have to worry about selling themselves. Everyone received the same amount of money. When a federal court opened the marketplace in 1984, the Southwest Conference survived for only 10 years.
Expansion became paramount, for leagues either had to eat or be eaten. The TV market demanded it. Yet the conference had become vulnerable, weakened by sundry ailments: the advent of professional sports, the widening chasm between small, private universities (SMU, TCU, Rice, Baylor) and large state institutions (Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Houston), the pervasive cheating that peaked int he 1980s and the members' own intransigence. Perhaps the saddest element of the conference's demise is that the league had a window of opportunity to modernize and didn't climb through it.
"I failed," says Fred Jacoby, commissioner from 1982-93. "I spent more time trying to hold it together and trying to make changes." Jacoby should order enough hair shirts to go around. In order for him to lead, someone had to be willing to follow. Rather than take an aggressive course ofaction such as expansion, the league's members allowed themselves to be picked apart. Aggressive action takes conviction, a commonality of purpose by partners willing to take a risk. Conference members had enough trouble agreeing that Christmas came in December.
"Someone told me Texas had more undergraduates than Rice had living alumni," says Rick Chryst, Atlantic Coast Conference assistant commissioner, who went to the ACC from the Southwest Conference office in 1991. "You begin to see the differences in resources and philosophies. The public/private distinction is pretty big anywhere. We face it here (in the ACC) with Duke and Wake Forest. The day-to-day decisions are animated by the character of institutions. Tuition costs translate into scholoarship exposure. How many private schools compete (well) in football?"
These are tough issues for privates. Three of the four private schools in the Southwest Conference were based in Texas' two largest metropolitan areas. Rice, TCU and SMU all had thrived prior to 1960.
"There's a reason why Rice has a 70,000 seat stadium," Jacoby says. All of Houston once made the Owls their own. TCU and SMU staged a showdown for national supremacy in 1935 that remains one of the sports legendary games. The Mustangs won it 20-14 despite the efforts of Baugh.
Thousands of Texans followed SMU to the Rose Bowl, where they lost to Stanford 7-0.
A quarter of a century later, the National Football League came to Dallas. The Cowboys, thanks to Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt, began as the darlings of the state and peaked as America's Team.
"Pro sports usurped newspaper space," Jacoby says. "We all have time and money. How do we allocate them? That has had irreparable damage. Where are colleges flourishing in attention? Oklahoma, Arkansas, Nebraska, Alabama, Tennessee. Where are colleges flourishing in pro markets? You have to have a real strong winner. Miami's support is four miles wide and an inch deep. If they drop off, that will plummet."
Dallas, Fort Worth or Houston hasn't had a consistent winner in years. Even when the University of Houston went 10-1 in 1990 the Cougars drew an average crowd of 29,934. By 1993, when Houston won one game, that average dropped by one-third. Fans deserted SMU, TCU and Rice as well. The Owls may have a large stadium but they haven't filled it since 1970. In fact, the most recent attendance record set by those three schools occurred in 1984, when TCU-Texas attracted 47,280 to Amon Carter Stadium in Fort Worth.
Even that achievement highlighted another problem. Texas and Texas A&M couldn't sell their own tickets to alumni in Houston and Dallas. Those fans didn't have to make donations to their respective alma maters in order to buy season tickets for games three hours away. They could drive over to TCU--or SMU or Rice--on the day of the game and buy tickets. The lack of interest in the pro-dominated cities manifested iteself in TV ratings, too.
"You didn't have the support in the two biggest markets, Dallas and Houston, to keep it going," says Ken Haines, vice president of Raycom, which holds the conference's syndication rights. With Arkansas, he added, the Southwest Conference "wasn't the Big Ten. It was viable. When Arkansas left, it made it difficult for us to break even financially."
Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles has been in charge of the Razorbacks' program for more than a generation. Unike most schools, where athletic directors only made suggestions to the president or the board of trustees, Broyles could make decisions unilaterally. He could see the future and, in his mind, it didn't bode well for Arkansas. So he took the Razorbacks to the Southeastersn Conference. It's difficult to tell what hurt the Southwest Conference more: Arkansas departure or the perception of the conference it left behind.
Broyles has often said he felt compelled to make the switch because the realities of the marketplace. Arkansas abandoned its lifelong partners to save its own existence. The move has worked out well. The Southweastern Conference is an integral part of the culture in the South. That and the ever-increasing population, i.e. TV market, made the league attractive to the networks.
Arkansas, toughened by SEC basketball, has climbed to the national elite. However, the equally tough competition in football has taken a toll on the Razorbakcs, clearly a level or two below the Alabamas and Auburns.
The departure made it more clear than ever that the league needed to change its configuration. In defecting, however, Arkansas left the SWC in a weak position to negotiate the future. Though Arkansas may be a small state, its university had been a strong partner.
"The ratings were so high (in Arkansas)," Haines says, "that it was bringing a population base to advertisers at half of what that base would cost in the SWC."
When Arkansas announced its decision in 1990 to bolt to the SEC, the conventional wisdom held that Texas and Texas A&M would soon follow. Grant Teaff, then head coach at Baylor and now the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, compared the renegades to Iraq, which days earlier had invaded Kuwait. Texas and Texas A&M never came out and said they wanted to leave. As it turns out, Arkansas provided the two flagships with a dress rehearsal of what they would need to do. Both schools would have to sell the move to legislators at the capital in Austin.
Alumni of Texas Tech and Baylor help power in Texas state government well out of proportion to the power held by those schools in the SWC. When Arkansas bolted, the phones started to ring at the capital. Soon, hearings would be scheduled. The legislators threatened to restrict access to the oilfield royalty checks that Texas and Texas A&M had used to become two of the best-regarded academic institutions in the nation.
Texas and Texas A&M wrested concessions from their conference brethren. Rather than equitably split gate receipts, the two schools forced the others to agree to what DeLoss Dodds, Texas athletic director, described as "You keeps yours and I'll keep mine." That didn't do anything to solve the basic problem--getting people through the gate. The lack of interest affected the SWC in many veins, all of which lead to the beating heart of TV. A network is looking for marquee games: Alabama-Auburn, USC-Notre Dame, Michigan-Ohio State. Arkansas-Texas, a rivalry that once decided the national championship, would be no longer. That left the conference with only two perennials: Texas-Texas A&M and Texas-Oklahoma.
"As a league," Chryst says, "you went in trying to create three packages: national, syndicated, plus they (the members) wanted to hold something on their own. The conference wasn't deep enough to support it. TV brings issues into sharper focus."
In the days when the NCAA controlled the TV rights of its members, issues such as inventory control did not exist. The NCAA controlled the inventory and all the members received a check. But in 1984, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia sued the NAA for control of their TV rights. U.S. District Court Judge Juan Burciaga ruled in favor of the universities. College football began appearing on four to six channels every fall Saturday.
The timing couldn't have been worse for the SWC. When SMU arrived among the national polls in the early 1980s, the route it took changed the face of college sports forever. SMU cheated and received two years of NCAA probation in June 1981. In 1985, SMU got three more years. Then came the revelation that ended all revelations: Not only had SMU been paying its players, but the school's highest officials had approved the payments. Bill Clements, SMU chairman of the board of trustees, gave his approval while serving as governor of the state of Texas. When asked why he had lied about his actions, Clements said, "There weren't any Bibles in the room."
Shortly before Clements' role became public, he had dinner in his home with Bum Bright, former Cowboys' owner and a devout Texas A&M Aggie. About that time, Clements had promised Bright that if SMU went down, everyone would go down. Before the 1980s ended, seven of the nine conference schools received NCAA probation, the worst punishment, of course, being the "death penalty" meted out to SMU in March 1987. The athletic program hasyet to recover.
Although the level of cheating may have been unprecedented, neither could it be labeled a phenomenon. "I wasn't here two weeks before I knew we had a problem," Jacoby says. "When you have violations, you have a lack of trust."
The price the conference schools paid for dealing in scandal and the resultant NCAA probation grew exponentially. The NCAA demanded a heavy toll in scholarships and TV exposure.
The effects of losing those two essentials, the meat and potatoes of a revenue-producing program, have been well-documented at school from Florida to California. Yet in Texas, given the state's ability to produce the finest high school football players in the nation, an extra tariff was paid. The stain on the conference's name drove those top players away from home. By the late 1980s, the retention rate by the SWC of the state's Top 100 Prospects, as identified by The Dallas Morning News, dwindled to 60 percent. The better the player, the more likely he would leave.
From 1980 to 1984, of the 18 All-Americans who listed Texas cities or town as their homes, 12 (66.7 percent) attended SWC schools. In the next five-year-period, 1985-89, 17 Texas residents won All-America recognition. Only five (29.4 percent) played in the SWC.
Two cases illustrate the mess the conference wrought. One is Tim Brown, the Notre Dame wide receiver who won the 1987 Heisman Trophy. Brown grew up in Dallas and attended Woodrow Wilson High, which makes it one of the two high schools that has produced two Heisman winners. Davey O'Brien, the 1938 winner from TCU, also went to Woodrow, as the locals call it.
Brown narrowed his choice to SMU and Notre Dame. On the fay before the signing date, Brown claimed, SMU recruiters made promises that would have broken NCAA ruled. He went to Notre Dame, where he spearheaded the Fighting Irish's resurgence under head coach Lou Holtz.
Other Texans who achieved greatness elsewhere included quarterback Ty Detmer of Brigham Young, tailback Thurman Thomas of Oklahoma State, linebackers Brian Bosworth of Oklahoma and Alfred Williams of Colorado, and center Jake Young of Nebraska. Detmer was the Heisman winner in 1990. For the last five seasons, the trend has returned to normal. Ten of the 13 All-Americans from Texas went to Texas schools. Bu the barn door had been left open too long.
Ever since Arkansas left, there has been an air of inevitability wafting about the league. Immediately after the announcement in 1990, Jacoby began beseeching the Big Eight to consider, if not merger, then a pooling of resources. The Big Eight never showed much interest. Jacoby remembered an early meeting at an airport hotel in Oklahoma City.
"I went over scheduling, marketing, negotiations of TV," Jacoby says. "When I got through, they looked at me like, 'What the hell are you talking about?"
There had been a meeting over dinner at the 1991 NCAA Convention in Nashville and at the College Football Association conventions in 1991 and 1993. Little had come of them.
"I was convinced," says Jacoby, "that the only way the Big Eight would be interested was if it got a slap across the face."
Jacoby pushed his own presidents not to sit back and get picked over. He wanted to expand. "The presidents said, 'Don't talk to anyone already in a football conference,'" Jacoby recalls.
Tulane made a pitch, but Dodds and others didn't believe the small, private school could deliver the New Orleans TV market. Jacoby believed it could have.
"The ACC expanded to get Georgia Tech, and all of a sudden Georgia Tech went 0-17 (in ACC football games)," he says. "Then Tech started to grow and ended up winnings the (1990) national championship."
Jacoby campaigned to bring Memphis and Louisville, which would have strengthened the league's basketball presence. But no one wanted to make a move only for basketball.
"We were in the driver's seat in 1991 and 1992," Jacoby says. "Once it got tot he spring of 1994, the contracts had been negotiated."
The CFA TV alliance long had been an uneasy one. In 1990, after the CFA had negotiated a five-year, $350 million contract with ABC and ESPN, but before it had signed, Notre Dame bolted to make its own five year, $37 million deal with NBC. Once one member left, others lost their reticence. The SEC negotiated with CBS up to 45 minutes before agreeing to remain part of the CFA's revised $300 million, Irish-less deals. The SEC made the agreement by wrenching more appearances out of the CFA, which left other conferences, chiefly the Big East, disgruntled.
The cntract turned out well for all parties. Rather than show one or two games per Saturday as CBS had, ABC adoted a regional schedule, televising as many as five games simultaneously. The strategy proved to be ideal for the Southwest Conference. Texas, with two of the top 10 TV markets in Dallas and Houston, could guarantee a good rating for a regional telecast featuring Texas or Texas A&M.
During the 1993 and 1994 seasons, ABC televised Texas to the Southwest region six times. The Longhorns earned an 8.5 rating. Texas A&M, which could not appear on TV in 1994 because of the NCAA probation, earned a 7.2 rating in three games in 1993. SWC games featuring the other six schools earned a 6.3 rating. In other words, Texas was watched by 35% more viewers than the others.
Even more interesting, Big Eight games earned an average 7.7 rating in those two seasons, a rating 22% higher than the others. The Big Eight held substantially more appeal to the Southwest fan than the SWC have-nots.
The TV-rights marketplace, which had been soft throughout the early 1990s, changed abruptly at the end of 1993, when the Fox network outbid CBS for the rights to the National Football Conference games in the NFL. Suddenly CBS had a lot of money and nothing to buy with it. The network, partly by design and partly by consequence, had been left with few marquee events. However CBS had a long-standing relationship with the NCAA. Televising the men's basketball tournament meant CBS Sports executives, chiefly programming vice president Len DeLuca, had kept open avenues of communication even though CBS televised no I-A football.
In the fall of 1993, the CFA began negotiating a renewal contract with ABC. The network felt the deal had worked for both sides. So, too, did the CFA hierarchy. CFA executive Chuck Neinas and the group's television consultant, Mike Trager, operated under the assumption that the market remained soft. They negotiated a small increase in rights fees. What they failed to realize, however, is that Fox had changed the playing field.
The contract came before the CFA membership in January 1994 in San Antonio, where all of the college athletics had congregated for the annual NCAA Convention. Approval was expected. It did not come. SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, in particular, raised questions about whether all avenues had been explored. When the meting ended, ABC executives walked in expecting good news. They didn't get it. That meeting would be the first step down the slippery slope of change.
CBS struck immediately, going hard after the SEC. Super Bowl XXVIII was held in Atlanta in January 1994. Kramer went as the guest of CBS Sports, which had a Skybox in the Georgia Dome that shared a glass wall with ABC's box. When Kramer walked in, he turned and saw ABC Sports president Dennis Swanson looking at him. The next week, CBS and the SEC made a deal. That move effectively ended the CFA package. ABC quickly reached agreement witht he ACC. CBS then signed the Big East.
"For a long time in there," Dodds says, "and I can't define it--two or three years--ut was obvious (the SWC) was going to have to break up. But politicaly, it couldn't. The SEC leaving the CFA package was the impetus to make it happen."
That left the Big Eight and the SWC. When the CFA coalition broke up, the two leagues agreed to negotiate as a unit. CBS, after acquiring the rights to the SEC and the Big East, said it had room for no one else. That left ABC, which within a week made a $60 million offer to the two leagues.
On Friday, February 11, 1994, the presidents of the 16 Southwest Conference and Big Eight institutions met at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport Hyatt to discuss the deal. Dr. Robert Berdahl, University of Texas president left no doubt that Texas had no qualms about dissolving the SWC.
Berdahl told them that the university had had discussions with the PAC-10 Conference and that Texas leaned toward going west. Texas A&M's most recent probation--several Aggies football players had been paid for no-show or no-work jobs--convinced him that the league still couldn't police its own. Furthermore, the Big Eight schools accepted Prop 48 students, freshmen who failed to meet the NCAA minimum academic standards for athletic eligibility.
Berdahl's speech rocked both leagues. Big Eight officials began to explore what the league's worth would be to ABC without the SWC. But they also realized that they would have to make some sort of agreement or else Texas and Texas A&M would walk.
"There was a concern among the CEOs," Kansas State president Jon Wefald told The Dallas Morning News, "who were then realizing that the Big Eight Conference had value and might have more value with several other members of the Southwest Conference."
Berdahl did no engage in bluffing. He almost literally had the cards in hand. One senior university official told the Morning News that Texas would have an offer to join the PAC-10 "as fast as a fax machine works." Teas A&M, on the other hand, actively began pursuing leads to join the SEC.
Yet both Texas and Texas A&M faced the same hurdle in 1994 they had failed to leap four years earlier: Texas Tech and Baylor still had substantial power in state government. With Texas leaving its commitment to the SWC and the Big Eight in question, Texas Tech president Robert Lawless called his legislators on Wednesday, Feb 16. "The dogs are loose in Austin," he said.
By the end of the week, according to one Texas state legislator, Univerisity of Texas chancellor William Cunningham "had a religious experience." An SWC official said Lt Gov. Bob Bullock, a Baylor graduate, gave Cunningham a "come to Jesus" speech. Cunningham laughed at the religious overtones and denied both premises.
Whatever the truth, it soon became clear where Texas' future lay. The PAC-10 let Cunningham and Berdahl know that it had an interest in Texas and Texas A&M. But that was it. Baylor and Texas A&M would not receive an invitation. The Big Eight would take those two schools but had no interest in a 16-team merger. ABC had said the value of its offer for 12 schools would be the same amount of money as if the Big Eight and the SWC merged. By leaving Houston, Rice, SMU and TCU behind, the 12 schools received one-thrid more money.
"By going along to the Big Eight," Cunnongham says, "we were able to take care fo four schools."
And so it happened. On Monday, Feb. 21, the news leaked. By the end of the week, the invitations had been formally made and formally accepted. The Southwest Conference would remain together through the 1995-1996 school year. Hatchell, a lame-duck commissioner, albeit with a contract that lasted until 1998, engineered getting Rice, TCU and SMU into a newly-expanded WAC. A year later, he was appointed commissioner of the newly organized Big 12. Houston decided to join, for football, a conference of former independents.
So the Southwestern Conference will die next year at age 81. Some tradition will live on. Texas A&M students will stand for the entire game, representative of the 12th man, ready to play. Texas Exes will continue to wear burnt-orange sport coats and be dissatisfied with fewer than eight wins.
But some tradition will expire with the league. The Cotton Bowl, once a Jan. 1 showcase, has fallen to the second tier. As hospitable as the hosts were, they wouldn't put a smile and a handshale on an icy, 35-degree day in Dallas. Bowls are about playing golf and getting sunburned. Rivalries such as Texas-SMU and Baylor-TCU will be filed away with ads for Sakowitz stores. Texas-Oklahoma will be a press-conference game.
And, just maybe, the Texas boom that has been down for so long will rise again.
The number 56 is iconic in the baseball world. You know it refers Yankees great Joe DiMaggio’s MLB-record hitting streak from 1941. Other than Pete Rose getting to 44 games in 1978, no player since that magical ’41 season has put together a 40-game streak. It seems like someone usually gets to about 30 games each season (including Dan Uggla’s 33-gamer this season), and the media lauds and lauds the long-standing record of DiMaggio.
But are hitting streaks overhyped? Most hitters are obviously productive when they have a long streak, but the reality is that you only need to one-for-four each game to keep it going. Many times, there is another player who is more productive than a batter on a long hit streak. However, we all know which hitter will get more attention.
Now back to 1941 and DiMaggio’s 56-game streak. During that season, Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox hit .406 to become the first player since 1930 to reach that incredible milestone. DiMaggio batted an admirable .357 in ‘41, but that was 49 points below Williams. The Splendid Splinter scored more runs, hit more homers, had only five fewer RBIs than DiMaggio and had a higher on-base and slugging percentage.
Yet, DiMaggio outdistanced Williams for MVP getting 15 first-place votes to Williams’ eight. Presumably, the reasoning was that writers around the league liked DiMaggio and had no patience for Williams. But the magical streak didn’t hurt.
Certainly the streak was magical for DiMaggio. But examining the numbers a little deeper shows that even during that streak, Williams was better. Better than a 56-game hitting streak?
In DiMaggio’s 56 games, he batted .408 with 15 home runs, 55 RBIs and scored 56 runs. He walked 21 times and whiffed just five times. He reached base via hit or walk 112 times. Now that’s impressive. However…
His rival to the north in Boston was even more impressive. During those same 56 games, Williams played in 55 games and batted .412 and scored 61 runs. He hit 12 homers and drove in 50, but reached base 127 times, 50 times via a walk. Williams had a higher average, on-base and slugging percentage than DiMaggio during the famous Yankee’s famous streak.
Nothing against the amazing consistency that the Yankee Clipper showed during those two months in 1941, but fans should note that there was a better hitter during the iconic 56-game streak.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly had a bad first weekend of college football. Not only did the Notre Dame-USF game get delayed a few hours due to lightning, but his team lost, despite outgaining South Florida by 300 yards (but they turned the ball over five times). Which really seemed to tick off the Notre Dame coach, because he kept screaming til his face nearly exploded on the sideline. Here are a few of our favorite Brian Kelly yelling photos.
Today marks the 16th anniversary of when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak to become baseball's all-time "Iron Man." In the NFL, the longest current consecutive games played streak belongs to Peyton Manning, who has never missed a start in his 13-year career.
However, with the news over the weekend that lingering back soreness following offseason neck surgery will prevent the four-time MVP from practicing, it seems doubtful that no. 18 will be under center for the Indianapolis Colts when they open their season on Sunday against the Texans in Houston.
The last time the Colts had someone other than Manning under center at the start of a regular-season game was December 21, 1997. That day, Jim Harbaugh, who is now the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, was under center as the Colts fell to the Minnesota Vikings to cap a 3-13 season. That of course led to them drafting Manning with the first overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft and the rest as they say, is history.
Manning started Week 1 of the 1998 season and he hasn't looked back since. Including the playoffs, Manning has started in 227 consecutive games. His regular-season streak of 208 consecutive games played by a quarterback is second only to Brett Favre's all-time mark of 297. As impressive as that is, we must not lose track of the bigger picture, which is what the Colts as a team have done with Manning running the offense.
In Manning's 13 years under center, the Colts have won a total of 150 games (including playoffs), eight divisional titles, two AFC titles and one Super Bowl. The Colts hold the NFL record for consecutive seasons with 12 or more wins with seven (2003-09), and have won 10 or more games and made the playoffs the past nine seasons.
For now, the Colts will have Kerry Collins directing their offense. Collins is certainly no rookie, with 177 career starts for five different teams under his belt, but he's no spring chicken either, as he'll turn 39 in December. More importantly, while Manning has 13 years' worth of experience and time spent learning and working with the Colts' offense, Collins will have less than three weeks' worth when he takes his first snap in Houston.
So needless to say, Week 1 is going to look and feel a lot different for both Colts' fans and players alike if no. 18 isn't going to be on the field. And while his absence will put an end to his consecutive games played streak, one has to wonder what impact this could have on the Colts' season as a whole, especially if Manning starts a new streak - consecutive games NOT played. If that's the case, then it may be the only streak the Colts will be able to lay claim to once the season ends.
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Your NFL fantasy football drafts are nearing. Check back throughout the preseason for updated rankings to get you prepared for your draft.
Rankings are based upon Athlon Sports' standard scoring system:
Athlon's NFL Fantasy Positional Rankings and Cheat Sheets for 2011
Athlon's NFL Fantasy Top 280 Ranks for 2011
|101||Green Bay DST||GB||DST||8|
|105||New England DST||NE||DST||7|
|106||New York Jets DST||NYJ||DST||8|
|161||Tampa Bay DST||TB||DST||8|
|165||New York Giants DST||NYG||DST||7|
|183||Kansas City DST||KC||DST||6|
|191||New Orleans DST||NO||DST||11|
|243||San Diego DST||SD||DST||6|
|277||San Francisco DST||SF||DST||7|
*If Arian Foster's hamstring injury turns out to be a tear and he misses the first three-four games, he would drop to 27 in the rankings.
**If Manning's neck injury keeps him out four-five games, he would drop to 100 in the rankings, Reggie Wayne drops to 67th, Austin Collie to 109th, Pierre Garcon to 141st.