Articles By Nathan Rush

All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /columns/5-burning-questions/fighter
Body:

When LeGarrette Blount threw the "punch heard 'round the world" following Chip Kelly's debut as Oregon's head coach, Boise State's Byron Hout wasn't the only one who hit the deck. Kelly's reputation also took a serious shot after the 19–8 loss on the season-opening Thursday night kickoff.

In his first game on the national stage, Kelly's team appeared to be undisciplined and unprepared - committing eight penalties for 70 lost yards, accounting for only 152 total yards and losing the time-of-possession battle by a staggering 42:32-to-17:28. 
 
Then, Blount added insult to injury - or maybe serious injury to embarrassing insult - when he boiled over after a game in which he failed to back up his tough talk between the lines. Eight carries for a loss of five yards sent Blount over the edge and his reckless reaction to Hout's postgame heckling nearly took Kelly down with him.
 
Many questioned whether Mike Bellotti's former offensive coordinator and right-hand man was capable of leading his own team. Some even called for Kelly's immediate dismissal. 
 
But the 47-year-old Ducks coach survived his inauspicious 0–1 start and has thrived in Eugene ever since - earning back-to-back Pac-10 titles as well as a pair of conference Coach of the Year awards while going 22–2 (with losses at Stanford and to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl last year).
 
Now, Kelly is one game away from claiming Oregon's first BCS National Championship. The Ducks are a perfect 12–0 with the nation's highest scoring offense (49.3 ppg), thanks in large part to Kelly's system. Although, the quick-talking New Englander - who coached at Columbia, Johns Hopkins and his alma mater New Hampshire before arriving in the Pacific Northwest in 2007 - is quick to deflect any credit.
 
"It's all players. If it was the system, then everybody would run it. There's so much blown into that stuff. 'Well it's the system they run.' I would say that every coach in the country is stupid for not running that system then. If it's a system that's going to get you to score 50 points a game, then you should all run it," said Kelly, during a press briefing the week before heading to Glendale, Ariz., to take on Auburn.
 
"This game is played by players and won by players. It's not surprising that the four guys that were Heisman Trophy finalists (Auburn's Cam Newton, Oregon's LaMichael James, Stanford's Andrew Luck and Boise State's Kellen Moore), their team records was 47–2. One team lost on a field goal (Boise State) and the other team lost to the other guy that was in it (Stanford's 52–31 loss at Oregon). 
 
"College football's always been about the players. And the teams with the best players, usually, are the teams competing for the championships."
 
Kelly not only has a loaded roster of Ducks ready to compete for the BCS crystal, he also has played a role in Blount's redemption story. After suspending Blount following the Boise State brawl, Kelly brought his 6'0", 245-pound power runner back into the fold for the Civil War with Oregon State and the Rose Bowl against Ohio State. 
 
Rather than abandoning a player whose selfish actions potentially put Kelly's job in jeopardy, the tough-love coach stayed with the 24-year-old he affectionately calls "L.G." And this season, Blount rushed for 1,007 yards and six TDs as an NFL rookie with the Buccaneers.
 
"I talk to L.G. a couple times a month," said Kelly. "He's doing great and I'm really proud of him. What he's doing doesn't really surprise me."
 
And after watching Kelly get up off the mat and continue to fight following the negative impact of Blount's sucker punch to the UO program, no one should be surprised if the coach who pulls no punches of his own is able to lead Oregon to a BCS title on Jan 10.
Teaser:
Kelly has a loaded roster of Ducks ready to compete for the BCS crystal.
Post date: Saturday, January 8, 2011 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /columns/tap/champ-newton
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For the third straight year, Cam Newton's team is playing for a national title. And while this time around is a little different, Auburn's Heisman Trophy winner hopes the end result is exactly the same.

Two years ago, Newton watched Tim Tebow's Superman effort - 231 passing yards, two TDs and two INTs, with 109 rushing yards - lead Florida to a 24–14 win over Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami. 
 
Although Newton was sitting out with an ankle injury (for which he was ultimately granted a medical redshirt) and in the process of transferring (due to legal issues and playing time concerns behind Tebow), he was most certainly a member of the Gators' 2008 national title team.
 
"Cam had a great experience at Florida," said Cam's father, Cecil, following the transfer. "We just feel Cam has all the tools to play at a major college level. He's going to start this new chapter of his life."
 
Newton turned his attention to junior college powerhouse Blinn (Texas) College, a team coached by Brad Franchione, the son of former TCU, Alabama and Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione.
 
"They had a plan in place and when Tebow announced he was staying, (Newton) said he was coming here," Franchione told VYPE Magazine. "He wanted to get to a place where he could become a better passer. He felt he could run the ball in the SEC and he's proven that."
 
In his only season at Blinn, Newton led the Buccaneers to an 11–1 record, while passing for 2,833 yards, 22 TDs and five INTs, and scrambling for 655 rushing yards and 16 TDs. 
 
Newton capped his 2009 season with a 31–26 win over No. 1-ranked Fort Smith (Kan.) CC in the NJCAA National Championship Game. The dangerous dual-threat signal-caller passed for 111 yards and one INT, and rushed for 110 yards and one TD en route to Blinn's fourth NJCAA national title.
 
"He's just so gifted and we were blessed to have him in our program," said Franchione. "He has that ‘it' quality. When he enters a room, you know it."
 
The 6'6", 250-pound junior from College Park, Ga., has certainly made his presence known since arriving at Auburn - leading the Tigers to a perfect 13–0 record, an SEC title and a spot in the BCS National Championship Game against Oregon.
 
Newton has completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 2,589 yards, 28 TDs and six INTs, while tucking the ball to run for 1,409 yards and 20 TDs on the ground, and hauling in two catches for 42 yards and another score through the air. 
 
Although Newton's obvious physical gifts stand out, his intangible qualities have been the difference this season. Newton has kept a Magic Johnson-like smile on his face despite constant, unparalleled media scrutiny and fan speculation surrounding his recruitment, his father and a potential play-for-pay scenario.
 
Through it all, Newton has held his head high and played with the type of seemingly-invincible swagger necessary to lead Auburn back from a 24–0 deficit against Alabama and pull off a 28–27 win on the road at Bryant-Denny Stadium in the Iron Bowl. 
 
"He's a great leader. He's got the ability, once he gets in the huddle, that all eyes are on him, and whatever he says, they're going to do. They really believe in him," said Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, during a BCS title game press conference.
 
"His leadership is definitely a big reason we're here."
 
The Tigers will rely on Newton's poise under pressure as well as the championship game experience he gained last year at Blinn. Granted, the lights will be brighter and the audience will be larger when Auburn takes on Oregon. But Newton has the same goal this year as he did last season - win a national championship. 
 
"(The NJCAA title game) was a great atmosphere to be in. That's something I will take to my grave, just being around something that we worked very hard for. And, you know, this season kind of resembles that," said Newton, who has a combined 24–1 record as a starter at Blinn and Auburn.
 
"Hard work pays off."
Teaser:
For the third straight year, Cam Newton's team is playing for a national title.
Post date: Saturday, January 8, 2011 - 08:50
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/monday-recap/heat-check
Body:

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came out scorching during their Heat check in L.A. on Christmas Day. Miami pulled off a 96–80 statement win against the Lakers, filling a highlight reel with dunks, threes and suffocating team defense.

James became just the fourth player in history to notch a triple-double on Christmas Day, joining Oscar Robertson, John Havlicek and Billy Cunningham. LBJ's 31st career triple-double including 27 points on 8-of-14 shooting (including 5-of-6 from 3 and 6-of-6 from the free throw line), 11 rebounds and 10 assists to go along with four steals and only one turnover.

Playing on a sore knee, D-Wade added 18 points, six assists, five boards, one steal and one blocked shot, while often playing phenomenal one-on-one defense against Kobe Bryant, who played the role of facilitator on XMas, with 17 points on 6-of-16 shooting and seven assists in a losing effort.

The big surprise of the Big Three was Bosh, who dominated early on and finished with 24 points on 11-of-17 shooting and 13 rebounds in what could arguably be his first taste of the national spotlight. Bosh clearly outplayed his Laker counterpart Pau Gasol, who finished with 17 points and eight rebounds.

But the Larry O'Brien Trophy is not awarded in December. Both the Heat and Lakers still have plenty of work to do if there is to be the overhyped Heat vs. Three-peat Finals showdown many desire. But this Christmas, the Lakers had coal in their stocking and the Heat used it to start a fire that basketball fans will be talking about for quite a while.

Playoffs?!

The Chiefs, Jets, Ravens and Eagles joined the Patriots, Falcons, Steelers and Bears by punching their ticket to the playoffs in Week 16. Eight of the 12 postseason spots have been filled, with only the AFC South champ, NFC West champ, two NFC Wild Card berths and one remaining AFC Wild Card berth remaining.

Tuesday Night Football

The Sunday night showdown between Vikings and Eagles has been pushed back to Tuesday night following a Philadelphia snowstorm that had league officials more concerned over the 70,000-plus fans exiting Lincoln Financial Field around midnight than the actual game itself.

Now, the Vikings will deal with their second rescheduled game of the season — following a Week 15 contest with the Giants that was moved from Sunday to Monday and from Minnesota to Detroit — while the Eagles must worry about taking care of business against the Vikings on Dec. 28 before bouncing back to play the Cowboys on Jan. 2 in the Week 17 regular season finale.
 

Teaser:
LeBron, Wade, Bosh and Heat scorch Kobe, Pau and Lakers on Christmas.
Post date: Sunday, December 26, 2010 - 21:45
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/monday-recap/goal-line-stand
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The Jets defense stood strong in the franchise's first ever win on the road at Pittsburgh, taking a 22–17 victory in what could be a playoff preview.

New York veteran pass rusher Jason Taylor sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the end zone for a safety before New York's Rex-ecutioner stop unit forced two incomplete passes from Big Ben to end the game. Rex Ryan's usually aggressive defense did allow Big Ben to move the chains by rushing only three for most of the final drive. But the bend-don't-break philosophy ultimately paid off.

After combining to throw for zero TDs and four INTs in back-to-back embarrassing losses at New England (45–3) and against Miami (10–6), embattled Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez played well enough — completing 19-of-29 passes for 170 yards through the air, a rushing TD and zero turnovers — to pull off arguably the biggest statement win of his young career.

Although the Jets are 6–1 on the road this season, Sanchez's California background and lack of NFL success in cold weather had raised questions about the capability of the second-year signal-caller out of USC. But the Sanch-ise made plays when the opportunities presented themselves and didn't throw the game away in a playoff atmosphere, in the snow, in Pittsburgh this week.

Maybe these Jets are contenders after all.

Contender Brewing?

Most observers thought the Milwaukee Brewers would be in the trade market this hot stove season — as sellers, not buyers. But instead of shopping first baseman Prince Fielder, the Brew crew has acquired 2009 Cy Young winner Zack Greinke from the Royals.

Milwaukee several of its top young players — including shortstop Alcides Escobar, outfielder Lorenzo Cain and right-handed pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress — in order to acquire Greinke and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt from Kansas City.

Greinke has a career line of 60–67 with a 3.82 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 931 strikeouts in 1108.0 innings. In 2009, however, he was nearly untouchable — with a 16–8 record (despite little to no run support from the Royals), 2.16 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 242 strikeouts in 229.1 innings.

Puerto Rico Pitino

Rick Pitino has taken three teams (Providence, Kentucky and Louisville) to the Final Four, cutting down the nets with the Wildcats in 1996. Now, the 58-year-old — who has also coached the NBA's Knicks and Celtics — will lead the Puerto Rico national team in their attempt to secure a bid to the 2012 Olympics in London.

Pitino will use the unique opportunity to help not only the Puerto Rico national team but also his Louisville Cardinals. Next summer, the two squads will practice against one another before heading down to the Bahamas for a tournament. From there, Puerto Rico will compete in the 2011 FIBA Tournament of the Americas, where they must finish in the top two in order to secure a berth in the 2012 Olympics.

Puerto Rico qualified for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, upsetting the USA en route to a sixth-place finish in the tournament. But Puerto Rico was unable to qualify for the games in 2008.
 

Teaser:
Mark Sanchez didn't throw away the game and the Jets' D stood strong at Pittsburgh.
Post date: Monday, December 20, 2010 - 13:42
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/taking-sides/super-bowl-favorites
Body:

Who Will Win Super Bowl XLV?

New England

I don’t envy my colleague this week. Making the case for anyone other than the Patriots to win the Super Bowl is a fool’s errand. The P-men are riding a colossal wave, and that wave will crest in Dallas in early February.

Let’s sample some of their recent work. In a two-week period, the Patriots outscored the Jets and Bears, considered to be two of the best teams in football, by a combined 81–10. They silenced Rex Ryan’s confident crew, sending the Jets into a tailspin from which they might not recover. Even more impressive was the way New England marched into Chicago’s vaunted Bear Weather, into snow showers whipped into a blinding froth by the gale force winds off Lake Michigan, in front of a hostile crowd, against a Bears team that had won five straight, and utterly humiliated the home team in every phase — running, passing and returning the ball at will.

The Patriots’ greatness starts at the top; they have the two most important jobs covered better than any team in football. Coach Bill Belichick is absolutely on top of his game right now, and his schooling of Rex Ryan and Lovie Smith gives him an impressive assortment of scalps for his belt this season, including John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin. Does Atlanta’s Mike Smith, who has yet to win a playoff game in his brief career, have any hope against a coach who is 15–5 in the postseason?

Then there’s Tom Brady, who might be playing the best football of his Hall of Fame career. Has a quarterback ever played at a higher level? Entering the Pats’ Week 15 encounter with Green Bay, Brady was on an eight-game roll that included 19 TD passes and no interceptions.

The best coach and the best quarterback in the NFL? That’s good enough for me.  

– Rob Doster

Atlanta

Get ready to do the “Dirty Bird” dance, Dan Reeves and Jamal Anderson, because this year’s Atlanta Falcons are about to take it one step farther than the 1998 squad did en route to becoming the first and only Super Bowl participant in franchise history. While that team lost Super Bowl XXXIII to the Denver Broncos, 34–19, in John Elway’s final game, this year’s Falcons will not be denied — if, and only if, they are able to clinch homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs.

If Matt Ryan’s crew can lock up the NFC’s No. 1 seed and play at the Georgia Dome,  they will be suiting up for Super Bowl XLV in “Jerry’s House” at Cowboys Stadium. And once you are playing in the big game on Super Sunday, anything can happen — as the helmet-catching Giants and onside-kicking Saints showed while pulling off improbable underdog upset wins over the 18–0 Patriots and heavily favored Colts, respectively.

The AFC is loaded with title contenders at every turn — with the Patriots, Steelers, Ravens and Jets leading the way. Meanwhile, the NFC is far more “winnable” — with the inconsistent Giants, Bears and Saints, the injury-riddled Packers and the Eagles’ one-man band. Regardless of talent or track record, if the Falcons have the homefield edge, they are the team with the best chance to play in Super Bowl XLV.

“Matty Ice” loves the warmth of the dome. Heading into Seattle in Week 15, Ryan had a 31–12 career record as a starter, with a 19–1 mark at home and 22–4 record indoors — compared to a 9–8 career record with the wind blowing outdoors. He’s been even better over the past two years, with a 12–0 home record and 14–2 mark indoors.

No team in the NFL wants to see the cool, calm and collected third-year signal-caller in a climate controlled environment. Tom Brady can have his snow. Guess what? The $1.1 billion “Palace in Dallas” has a roof as well as central air and heat. No expense was spared — which will prove priceless to the Falcons when they win Super Bowl XLV.

– Nathan Rush

Teaser:
Who will win Super Bowl XLV? The Patriots or the Falcons?
Post date: Thursday, December 16, 2010 - 13:43
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /columns/monday-recap/heisman-hero
Body:

Auburn quarterback Cam Newton won this year's Heisman Trophy in a landslide vote, receiving 729 of 886 possible first-place votes and 2,263 total points to beat Stanford runner-up Andrew Luck (1,079 points), Oregon's LaMichael James (916) and Boise State's Kellen Moore (635).

Newton joins Pat Sullivan (1971) and Bo Jackson (1985) as the third Heisman Trophy winner in Auburn history following a roller coaster ride season on The Plains. Newton led the Tigers to a 13–0 record, SEC title and spot in the BCS National Championship Game.

The one-man offense completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 2,589 yards, 28 TDs and six INTs, while also rushing for 1,409 yards and 20 TDs amid constant media scrutiny concerning pay-for-play allegations.

In the end, however, Newton was clearly the finest player in the country and was acknowledged as such by Heisman voters.

"Thank you to the Auburn family," said Newton, during an emotional acceptance speech on Saturday night. "Thank you for all the support that you have given me during these trying times. I also want to give a special thanks to my teammates. Without those guys I wouldn't be here right now getting the recognition."

The 6'6", 250-pound junior transferred to Auburn after leading Blinn College to the NJCAA National Championship in 2009 and spending two seasons with the Florida Gators from 2007-08.

If Newton leads Auburn to a victory over Oregon on Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz., in the BCS title game, he will have won three straight national championships — as a redshirt at Florida in 2008, the star at Blinn College last year and the Heisman-winning leader at Auburn this season.

Gator Raid

After Urban Meyer retired for the second straight offseason — this time for real — Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley had to fill one of the most coveted coaching posts in the country.

Foley didn't wait long to tap the heir to the Mack Brown throne, Texas coach-in-waiting Will Muschamp. The Longhorns defensive coordinator is a fiery 39-year-old who should breathe life back into a Gator team that went 7–5 this season.

"We wanted a candidate who was high energy and had been on the big stage," Foley said in an official statement. "We wanted a candidate who was respected by his players and his peers, and we wanted someone who had a passion for the University of Florida. Coach Muschamp is all of those things and more."

Muschamp grew up in Gainesville before playing safety at Georgia and serving as defensive coordinator at LSU (2001-04), Auburn (2006-07) and Texas (2008-10).

Golden Opportunity

Down the road in Coral Gables, the University of Miami also made a splash by hiring a young, energetic head coach in 41-year-old Al Golden, who took lowly Temple from a 1–11 team in his first season in 2006 to an 8–4 squad set to play in its second straight bowl game this season.

"Al Golden did not just win games at Temple University, but he built a football program and he did it the right way," Temple athletic director Bill Bradshaw told The Associated Press. "He engineered one of the most remarkable turnarounds in Division I history."

Golden will have much more to work with at Miami. Although the once-proud program is coming off a disappointing 7–5 season — and ending a mediocre 28–22 run under four seasons with outgoing coach Randy Shannon — there is plenty of talent on the Hurricanes current roster as well as in the backyard of The U.

At Miami, Golden will not have to go far to recruit the best players in the nation. And if he can maximize that type of five-star talent like he did with the one-stars at Temple, the Canes will be back in the national title hunt sooner than expected.

Teaser:
Auburn's Cam Newton ran away with this year's Heisman Trophy in a landslide vote.
Post date: Monday, December 13, 2010 - 12:42
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/taking-sides/instant-impact
Body:

What rookie has made the biggest impact?

Sam Bradford

Heisman winners are notorious for flopping in the NFL, but somebody forgot to tell Sam Bradford. The rookie from Oklahoma, drafted to the pro football wasteland of St. Louis, is single-handedly rejuvenating a moribund franchise and waking echoes of the Greatest Show on Turf that took the NFL by storm a decade ago.

It’s not like he had time to grow into the job, either. Coach Steve Spagnuolo and offensive coordinator Paul Shurmur tossed Bradford into the deep end without a life jacket, making him the focus of their attack despite the presence of elite running back Stephen Jackson, whose first 100-yard game was in Week 5.

Bradford has responded like a seasoned veteran. Yes, there have been speed bumps — eight interceptions in his first five games — but he’s racking up yards and touchdowns at historic rates and could even threaten Peyton Manning’s rookie records for passing yards (3,739) and touchdowns (26). Bradford surveys the field with preternatural poise; six Rams receivers have caught at least 25 passes this season.

Wins are what matter most, and that’s where Bradford is making his biggest impact. He already has more wins as a starter than fellow former No. 1 overall draft picks Manning, Troy Aikman and John Elway each had in their debut seasons. Suddenly, a team that went 6–42 from 2007-09 is a legitimate factor in the NFC West race and is flirting with its first winning season since 2003 and its first playoff trip since 2004.

Bradford’s defining moment thus far came in his first road win and first 300-yard passing performance, at Denver’s Invesco Field. In a 36–33 victory, Bradford was 22-of-37 for 308 yards, three TDs and no interceptions, becoming the first rookie since the merger to post a 300-yard, three-TD game in a road win. Big wins, big stats and helping a coach (Denver’s Josh McDaniels) get fired? Yep, I think I’d call that impact.

– Rob Doster

Ndamukong Suh

The Lions’ terrorizing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is not just the best rookie in the NFL this season, he is the most dominant, versatile, athletic and feared interior defensive lineman in the entire league right now.

Weighing in at 6'4", 307 pounds, the No. 2 overall pick out of Nebraska entered the pro ranks as one of the most decorated college players in history — as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and the recipient of the AP College Player of the Year, Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Lombardi Award, Nagurski Award and Bednarik Award.

Since arriving in the Motor City, the 23-year-old Suh has brought the aggression and tenacity that coach Jim Schwartz had the luxury of when he coached former All-Pro Albert Haynesworth — before the $100 million deal and petty Mike Shanahan 3-4 feud — as the Titans defensive coordinator. And if Suh keeps playing like he has early on, his next deal will dwarf Haynesworth’s contract.

Unlike Haynesworth in his prime, Suh has the ability to play anywhere along the line. In a 4-3 scheme, he is a dynamic pocket-collapsing, pass-rushing 3-technique tackle who can stunt out to end and be equally disruptive. Suh also has the classic 3-4 end body type and power. And, taking a step out on one of Suh’s tree trunk limbs, I think the big man could probably hold his own at the nose tackle, if asked — although that would be his least efficient role, so hopefully he never plays for Shanahan.

As a rookie, Suh has been a one-man wrecking crew for the Lions, with eight sacks in 12 games, along with one INT for 20 yards and one fumble recovery taken 17 yards to the end zone — as Redskins receiver Santana Moss comically tried to tackle Suh, who laughed as he spun and swatted the diminutive Moss away like a rhino to a fly.

If you don’t think Suh is the top rookie, don’t tell him. Rumor has it, Jake Delhomme said as much before being thrown down by the “next Reggie White” this preseason.

– Nathan Rush

Teaser:
Sam Bradford or Ndamukong Suh? Who's made the bigger impact?
Post date: Wednesday, December 8, 2010 - 19:39
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball
Path: /columns/national-notebook/history-professor
Body:

by Ken Davis

History is kind to those who achieve greatness. And in the world of sports, history is best served when the record-breakers have respect for those who came before them.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is climbing toward college basketball’s coaching stratosphere. Saturday’s 82–70 victory over Butler gave Coach K 876 victories and tied him with Kentucky legend Adolph Rupp for third all-time among NCAA Division I coaches.

There was a time when Rupp’s record seemed unattainable, sort of like Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played in Major League Baseball. But Cal Ripken came along to become the new Ironman. North Carolina’s Dean Smith eventually rose up to pass Rupp. Not long after that, Bob Knight moved ahead of Smith.

Krzyzewski still has a little distance to go before rising to the top. But it certainly makes sense to pause and reflect on what it will mean to pass Rupp and Krzyzewski is good at that type of thing. That’s because Coach K always has had an appreciation for basketball history.

"I’m going to win more I think than Coach Rupp, God bless him, who won’t win any more," Krzyzewski told reporters in East Rutherford, N.J., after Saturday’s rematch of last season’s national championship game. "He won a lot of them and he won them in his way and they didn’t play as many games then. Each era has outstanding achievements by individuals, whether they be players or coaches and in this era I’ve been fortunate to have some.

"It’s tough to compare. I much rather would have tied him in April than today because I’m going to keep coaching and we should win more games. You get too caught up with what your own team is doing to focus on that kind of stuff."

Let us take the opportunity to do that comparison for Krzyzewski. When Smith passed Rupp it was March 1997 and North Carolina defeated Colorado 73–56 in the NCAA Tournament. Past players and assistant coaches congregated in Winston-Salem, N.C., to help Smith celebrate — even though he tried to downplay the moment.

"This has never been a goal of mine," Smith said.

Consider the remarkable lineage college basketball has created. Smith and Rupp both played basketball at Kansas, under Phog Allen. Allen came to be known as "The Father of Basketball Coaching" and he learned the game from basketball’s inventor, Dr. James Naismith — who was his coach at Kansas.

Now the names ahead of Krzyzewski are Smith (879 victories) and Knight (902). Knight was Krzyzewski’s coach at Army. Smith and Coach K were opponents in the Atlantic Coast Conference, separated by just a few miles along Tobacco Road. Their remarkable ability to recruit and coach created college basketball’s most heated rivalry — Duke and North Carolina.

If not for Smith, Krzyzewski might have ended up coaching at Iowa State. Knight, who has been friends with Smith since they were young coaches, called the North Carolina coach and asked his opinion when Coach K was at West Point and had the opportunity to move on to Duke or Iowa State. Knight thought Ames was the place to go.

Smith said no. He told Knight that Duke would be easy to recruit to. "I really think he can get better players at Duke than he can at Iowa State."

Think how that one conversation changed the face of college basketball. Reflect on that as Krzyzewski moves past Rupp and heads on to pass his rival and then his mentor.

Krzyzewski has accomplished so much. Do not let that diminish the history-making moment that is ahead. It should truly be special. There are many more victories ahead for the Duke coach. Recruiting players such as Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler and Kyrie Irving guarantee that.

"Irving brings a whole other dimension to their guard play," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "I loved their guys last year but I think he is the consummate true point guard that Mike needs in that program. When Singler goes to [power forward] they’re a tough matchup."

Duke has demonstrated early in this season that it has the best team in college basketball. The Blue Devils, in large part because of freshman Irving, are better than they were last season — when they proved the best team doesn’t always win the national title.

Krzyzewski has a very good chance to repeat again. That is an amazing accomplishment in this era of parity, but just about everything Coach K does these days belongs to history. So we better pay attention.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

UConn’s Kemba Walker is still playing well enough to grab this award for a third consecutive week. But, in the interest of fairness, we are going spread the wealth a bit and turn to another Big East player. Georgetown senior guard Chris Wright knows when to score, when to quarterback and when to lead the Hoyas. He did a little of everything last week, scoring 21 points against Missouri and matching that total in a win over Utah State as the Hoyas improved to 8–0. Georgetown coach John Thompson III asked Wright to play 45 minutes in the 111–102 overtime victory over Missouri in Kansas City, Mo. In addition to his 21 points, Wright had 10 assists and only three turnovers. He was 9-for-9 from the free throw line, had one rebound and one steal. Against a very talented Utah State team Wright was 6-for-9 from the field, 8-for-10 from the line, had three rebounds, one assist and four steals. Among the shots he made was a highlight reel, over-the-shoulder layup.

FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK

If we didn’t have a freshman award, Duke’s Kyrie Irving would likely grab Player of the Week honors. The 6'2" guard from Elizabeth, N.J., was simply brilliant in wins over Michigan State and Butler — two solid opponents. Mike Krzyzewski keeps winning because he keeps digging out top recruits such as Irving. He is averaging 17.4 points, 5.1 assists, 3.8 rebounds and shooting 45.2 percent from three-point range through his first eight games. After watching his 36 minutes against Michigan State it’s hard to even consider him a rookie any more. The Spartans couldn’t stop him (31 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals, 8-12 FG, 13-16 FT, 2-3 on 3PT). Then he went home to the Meadowlands and scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half against Butler. He finished with two rebounds, two assists, one steal, 6-10 FG, 6-6 FT and 3-6 on 3PT). You don’t want to bet against him when Irving turns it on.

GAMES OF THE WEEK

Monday, Dec. 6

Alcorn State at Kansas State
Alcorn State has averaged 57.5 points on the way to a 0–6 record. K-State is 7–1, averaging 75.6 points. Looks like a rough trip to Bramlage for the Braves.

Tuesday, Dec. 7

Memphis vs. Kansas
These two have grown accustomed to facing one another in recent years. This time it’s at Madison Square Garden in the Jimmy V Classic. Both are 7–0. Memphis should be hungry for some revenge.

Michigan State vs. Syracuse
The second half of the Jimmy V Classic should be an interesting test of wills. The Spartans, who have lost to UConn and Duke, could use a win against a top 10 team like Syracuse. The Orange will be looking to improve its field goal percentage.

Wednesday, Dec. 8

Vanderbilt at Missouri
The Commodores, led by guard John Jenkins, already have a big win against North Carolina this season. Missouri lost to Georgetown last week (in the best game of the year so far) and then hung on to beat Oregon.

Notre Dame vs. Kentucky
John Calipari’s young Wildcats have already lost twice. Going up against Notre Dame (8–0) will be another challenge for Kentucky — even in Louisville.

Thursday, Dec. 9

Butler at Xavier
Butler is 4–3. Xavier is 5–2. Forget the records. These two teams will get after each other and play hard.

Saturday, Dec. 11

UNLV at Louisville
Lon Kruger’s team has started turning some heads. Louisville is 6–0 with a game against San Francisco before taking on the Runnin’ Rebels.

Wisconsin at Marquette
It’s Big Ten vs. Big East, but this one is all about Wisconsin bragging rights, one of those games you can’t afford to miss if you love rivalry battles.

Tennessee vs. Pittsburgh
This is a highlight of the SEC/Big East Invitational. Two undefeated teams. Tennessee has been off since Nov. 30. Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker lead Pitt.

Indiana at Kentucky
Remember when this was a big deal? Not so much these days.

Sunday, Dec. 12

Villanova at LaSalle
Philly in December and that means Villanova has two Big Five games in a week. The Wildcats are at Penn on Dec. 8.

THEY SAID IT:

"They make you guard them for 20, 25 seconds. You bounce off a lot of screens by some big, physical bodies. Their shot selection is very good, and you have to try to grind every possession. That wears on teams. They never make it easy." – Rider coach Tommy Dempsey, commenting on the Pitt Panthers, after an 87–68 loss to Jamie Dixon’s team.

"It's not one of those games where we can be content that, 'OK, we beat Kentucky.’ That doesn't make your season. That helps make your season." – North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller after scoring a career-high 27 points to lead the way as the Tar Heels defeated Kentucky 75–73.

"I was pleased in some regards. Like last year, I see a little light at the end of the tunnel, and you can embrace the little things." – Butler coach Brad Stevens after an 82–70 loss to Duke in a rematch of last season’s national championship game.

"Those guys fought hard to chip away, and just being in this situation, it was stressing me out the way this game was coming out. I was just glad to get out of here with a win." – Missouri’s Marcus Denmon after the Tigers let a 20-point lead slip away but held on for an 83–80 win at Oregon.

NOTES:

– Virginia Tech has lost three consecutive games — including Sunday’s ACC opener against Virginia — and stands 4–4. Coach Seth Greenberg put together a tough schedule in an effort to avoid another snub from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. But the Hokies have losses to Kansas State, UNLV, Purdue and Virginia. Senior guard Malcolm Delaney, the guy who makes Tech click, was held to nine points on 2-for-18 shooting against Purdue (58–55 loss). But Delaney says UNLV is the best team Tech has faced so far. "They’re relentless on defense," Delaney said. "They threw a new defender at me like every three minutes. They have a deep bench where they can just throw people at you. It’s hard to matchup with a team that basically plays four guards. They shoot the ball well, defend well, and their coaches do a good job with scouting reports and having their guys ready." – It will be interesting to see how Central Florida builds on that 57–54 victory over Florida. The Knights are averaging 80 points a game and rank fourth in the nation in field goal percentage. Leading the way is Marcus Jordan, a sophomore guard from Chicago averaging 16.4 points. Yes, he is Michael’s son (just in case you hadn’t heard). Thanks to a talented football team, Central Florida could be attractive to the Big East as the conference continues to eye expansion.

– Kemba Walker’s scoring average has dropped from 30 points per game to 29.1. But that doesn’t mean he is in a slump. UConn’s point guard put together his first career triple double last Friday with 24 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in a 94–61 victory over Maryland-Baltimore County. He also became the 45th UConn player to score 1,000 career points. Walker needed 77 games to reach that milestone.

– Team on the rise: Tony Bennett’s Virginia team won road games at No. 15 Minnesota and Virginia Tech last week. The Cavaliers improved to 5–3 and are sitting on top of the ACC standings with the win over Tech. Mike Scott came up big with 21 points, 13 rebounds, two assists and one block at Blacksburg.

– Team in trouble: Oklahoma dropped to 3–5 overall with an 83–60 loss at Arizona on Sunday. The Sooners have lost five straight, including a 68–64 setback to Chaminade at the Maui Invitational. The average margin of defeat in this stretch has been 13.4 points. Next up: Gardner-Webb on Thursday. – Milestone watch: Jamie Dixon is approaching his 200th career victory as Pittsburgh coach. Saturday’s 87–68 win over Rider was No. 197. Consider this: The Panthers are 9–0 for the eighth time in nine seasons and 81–1 against non-Big East opponents at the Petersen Events Center.

– The recent decision by Texas San Antonio to join the Western Athletic Conference may ultimately hurt the city of San Antonio’s effort to land Final Fours in 2017 and 2018, according to a report. Athletic director Lynn Hickey, a strong voice in men’s basketball, will resign her Southland Conference assigned position on the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee. Hickey had recently been appointed chair of the Game Operations/Site Selection subcommittee. But her resignation is required by the Southland Conference withdrawal policy. "It’s certainly unfortunate," Jenny Carnes, executive director of the San Antonio Local Organizing Committee, told the San Antonio News-Express. "It helps just having her in the loop and giving us the timelines for things."

Ken Davis is the author of Basketball Vault books covering the history of the University of Kansas and the University of Connecticut. Both are available through the publisher (http://www.whitmanvaultbooks.com/) and autographed copies are available at Ken's web page (http://kendavis55.wordpress.com/).

Teaser:
Coach K is well-versed in the basketball history he is in the process of making.
Post date: Monday, December 6, 2010 - 13:35
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/monday-recap/bcs-bound
Body:

Auburn (13–0) made a statement against South Carolina in the SEC title game, while Oregon (12–0) outlasted Oregon State in the Civil War finale to set up the undefeated No. 1 vs. No. 2 BCS National Championship Game we've all been hoping for.

Heisman Trophy favorite Cam Newton accounted for six touchdowns — passing for 335 yards, four scores and no picks while rushing for another 73 yards and two trips to the end zone — as the Tigers devoured the Gamecocks, 56–17, at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Across the country, the Ducks soared past their in-state rival Beavers in Corvallis . UO's own Heisman contender, running back LaMichael James, led the way 134 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.

Now, Auburn's Gene Chizik and Oregon's Chip Kelly have until Jan. 10, 2011, to plan their attack and scout their opponent's potent offense. The team that cries "War Eagle" enters averaging 42.7 points per game against only 24.5 points allowed, while Nike's neon-clad club is averaging 49.3 points against just 18.4.

Regardless of the outcome, this year's BCS national title game has all the ingredients for a classic — with two Heisman candidates leading teams that carry a combined 25–0 record while averaging nearly 100 points per game.

What's He Werth?

Well, if he's a 31-year-old one-time All-Star who plays right field, he might be worth $126 million over seven years. That is the deal Phillies' double-machine Jayson Werth signed with the Nationals over the weekend.

But the happiest man in the country had to be free agent outfielder Carl Crawford. The 28-year-old four-time All-Star was already viewed as the top everyday player on the market. And following Werth's outrageous contract, he now has the leverage to command an even better deal — maybe somewhere in the ballpark of Mark Teixeira's eight-year, $180 million of two years ago.

The Yankees, Red Sox and Angels can't be too happy after hearing what Werth was "worth" to the Nats. But at least they can look forward to negotiating with uber-agent and notorious nice guy Scott Boras at this week's winter meetings.

Tough as Steel

Big Ben Roethlisberger fought through a broken nose suffered on the first drive of the game to lead the Steelers to a 13–10 win on the road against the Ravens in an AFC North division Sunday night fight that lived up to its pregame billing.

"Someone just came through and a hand got through my facemask," said Roethlisberger, who also played the game with a broken bone in his foot. "The next thing you know, I feel blood running down my face."

But the biggest play of the game came on a safety blitz from Pittsburgh playmaker Troy Polamalu, whose strip sack of Baltimore's Joe Flacco was recovered by LaMarr Woodley to regain possession and set up the go-ahead touchdown pass to Isaac Redman with 2:51 left in regulation.

The Steelers now own sole possession of first place in the AFC North. And coach Mike Tomlin's team appears to be in top form heading into the stretch run after proving once again that they are as tough as any team in the NFL.
 

Teaser:
Undefeated Auburn and Oregon are headed to Glendale for the BCS national title game.
Post date: Monday, December 6, 2010 - 10:32
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/taking-sides/losers-playoffs
Body:

Does a 7-9 division winner deserve a playoff berth?

Yes

There is no reason to get fired up like Peter Carroll or panic like Mike Singletary just because a team with a losing record could end up as the champion of the NFC Worst, er, West division and earn a trip to the postseason.

The doomsday scenario has a sub-.500 Seahawks, Rams, 49ers or Cardinals club skating into the playoffs, while one or more winning teams — the Falcons, Eagles, Giants, Bears, Packers, Saints or Bucs — are left on the outside looking in once division champ automatic berths and Wild Card tickets are punched after Week 17.

But guess what? It’s never happened. Since the NFL expanded its regular season to 16 games in 1978, there has never been a team with a losing record in the playoffs.

There have, however, been nine 8–8 teams make it into the tournament. Those teams carry a 3–9 playoff record overall, with all three wins coming after the 2002 realignment resulted in eight divisions with four teams apiece.

Three of the last four 8–8 playoff teams — winners of supposedly “inferior” divisions — went on to win a playoff game against a “superior” team with a winning regular season record. In 2008, the 8–8 Chargers controversially made the playoffs ahead of the 11–5 Patriots and 9–7 Jets then proved their worth by upsetting the 12–4 Colts.

Lately, the split stats favor the .500 division champ against an overrated Wild Card. And is there really that much difference between a 7–9 team and one that is 8–8?

Each of the four teams in every division play 14 common opponents, with six division games and eight teams from two other divisions. It is the most logical, fair structure. Be they strong or weak, in America’s game all divisions are created equal. Like it or not, division champs certainly deserve to make the playoffs — regardless of their record.

– Nathan Rush

No

This season, we’re facing a very real, very unsettling possibility: Watching a sub-.500 Rams or Seahawks team host a playoff game, while a 10–6 or 11–5 team — say, the Packers — is sitting at home.

Such a possibility has existed for some time, but now that it’s on the cusp of becoming a reality, the time has come for the NFL to address it. The postseason tournament for the biggest sport in the world becomes a joke when a losing team takes a spot that rightfully belongs to a team with a significantly better record.

I understand the argument that we should reward division winners with a playoff berth. But we’re about to enter unprecedented territory. Never before in a full NFL season has a team with a losing record made the playoffs (the Browns and Lions snuck in at 4–5 after the strike-shortened 1982 season). In fact, since 1988, only six 8–8 teams have found their way into the playoffs. Conversely, since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, only two 11–5 teams — the 1985 Broncos and the 2008 Patriots — have missed the postseason. Neither of those teams was deprived a spot by a loser, although the 8–8 Chargers did find their way into the 2008 playoffs as AFC West champs.

But here is what parity has wrought in 2010. The NFC West and AFC South are historically bad divisions. Winning a title in a division of misfits and losers is sort of like being crowned Miss Trailer Trash — it’s an accomplishment and all, but it ain’t going to get you into the Miss America Pageant, nor should it.

It’s time for some common sense — no team that fails to win even half of its games deserves a right to play for a championship. It’s simply unconscionable for a losing team to deprive a winner of a spot in the tournament. Now is the time to preserve the integrity of the NFL playoffs and make a .500 record the minimum standard for inclusion in the postseason.

– Rob Doster

Teaser:
Does a 7-9 division winner deserve to make the playoffs?
Post date: Wednesday, December 1, 2010 - 23:22
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/monday-recap/iron-will
Body:

Iron Will

The Auburn Tigers are 12–0, ranked No. 1 in the BCS standings and are headed to the SEC title game after pulling off the biggest comeback in school history.

Auburn rallied from a 24–0 deficit to take down reigning national champion Alabama on the road in front of 101,821 fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, winning 28–27 in one of the greatest games in an Iron Bowl series that dates back to 1893.

"That was a game that will certainly go down in history. It's hard to come back when you're down 24–0," said Auburn coach Gene Chizik, during his postgame press conference following the come-from-behind win.

"It was a great win for Auburn football and it was a great win for Auburn University. I couldn't be more proud of that locker room in there. It is full of a lot of love, I'll tell you that. They deserve this win tonight because they fought for it. And again, I just feel proud to be a part of it."

As has been the case all season, Heisman Trophy frontrunner Cam Newton carried the Tigers, completing 13-of-20 passes for 216 yards, three TDs and zero INTs, while rushing for 39 yards and another TD.

After going into the locker room at halftime down 24–7, Auburn outscored Alabama 21–3 in the second half. More important, the Tigers were able to stop the rolling Crimson Tide momentum and quiet the rowdy crowd — especially following two successful fourth-down conversions.

"We came here to win the game. We did not come here to tie," said Chizik. "I have as much faith in our guys on a fourth-and-four or fourth-and-two or fourth-and-inches as anybody on the planet. When you feel that way, you're going to come on the road in a tough place to win and you're going to come here to win the game. That's what we did."

Now, the Tigers will go to the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta to face SEC East champ South Carolina and Newton will head to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York, where he will undoubtedly answer about $180,000 worth of questions regarding the rumors that have continued to swirl around the man with the big smile who seems unfazed while leading an undefeated team from the eye of a tremendous media storm.

Boise Blues

The biggest little upset in the country went down on Friday night when Nevada took down Boise State, 34–31 in overtime, in Reno.

The Wolf Pack fought back from a 17-point deficit and pulled off the unlikely come-from-behind victory, thanks in large part to Broncos kicker Kyle Broztman, who missed field goals of 26 yards (with two seconds left in regulation) and 29 yards (in overtime).

As a result, Boise State's BCS-busting days are over, the Rose Bowl paycheck is out the window and Kellen Moore's Heisman chances have all but hit zero. And, fair or not, many will question what coach Chris Petersen's record would be if he had to guide the Broncos through an SEC or Big Ten schedule — a subject Ohio State president Gordon Gee brought into the spotlight just last week.

U Fired

The Randy Shannon era is over in Coral Gables following a 23–20 overtime loss at home to in-state "rival" South Florida.

Shannon posted a disappointing 28–22 record (16–16 ACC) over four seasons as the head coach. But, all things considered, the 44-year-old is one of the more distinguished figures in Hurricanes football history — as a Miami native who played linebacker for Jimmy Johnson's 1987 national title team and served as defensive coordinator for Larry Coker's 2001 national title team before taking over the top spot on the sideline.

A nationwide coaching search is underway, with Super Bowl-winning ESPN analyst Jon Gruden leading a candidate list that almost certainly includes usual suspects like Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Rutgers' Greg Schiano, as well as outside-the-box candidates like Houston's Kevin Sumlin and Georgia's Mark Richt, or coordinators such as Auburn's Gus Malzhan and Texas' Will Muschamp.

Teaser:
Auburn rallies from a 24–0 deficit to beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl.
Post date: Sunday, November 28, 2010 - 23:04
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/taking-sides/manning-vs-brady
Body:

Who’s Better: Peyton Manning or Tom Brady?

Peyton Manning

If I were going to enter a laboratory to design the perfect NFL quarterback, I’d use Peyton Manning as the blueprint. In fact, I wouldn’t bother with the lab version — I’d stick with the real thing.

You want physical gifts and durability? Like Manning himself said in that old Sprint commercial: “That guy’s pretty good — if you like 6-5, 230-pound quarterbacks with a laser rocket arm…” That laser rocket arm provides equal measures of touch, accuracy and velocity. He manages to avoid pass-rushers with a quick release and deft footwork — he is the active leader among NFL quarterbacks in lowest sack percentage (3.15 percent heading into this season). As a result, Manning has never missed a start in his 13 seasons in the league.

You want intangibles and leadership? Manning is the closest thing to a player-coach in NFL history. As you watch Colts head coach Jim Caldwell stand passively on the sidelines, is there any doubt in your mind who the true coach of this team is? 

Watching Manning direct traffic at the line of scrimmage is like watching a maestro conduct the New York Philharmonic. His control over the team extends to the sidelines and the practice field as well. He does everything for this team but wash the socks and jocks.

You want mind-boggling stats? Manning is building the greatest statistical resume in history and will retire with most of the meaningful passing records. And for much of his career, he’s done it without the support of an elite ground game or defense.

You want postseason honors? Manning has earned three MVP awards and five first-team All-Pro designations and has made 10 Pro Bowl trips.

Most important, do you want wins? Manning has guided the Colts to an unprecedented run of excellence — seven straight seasons with 12 or more wins.

Bottom line: By any conceivable metric, Manning’s the man.

– Rob Doster

Tom Brady

The 199th pick of the 2000 NFL Draft is clearly better than the first overall pick of 1998. And the reason is intangible. Tom Brady’s blue collar rags-to-riches journey has added a killer instinct that Peyton Manning’s blue blood NFL royalty upbringing did not allow for him to develop. It’s not the destination, but the journey that makes these passers.

Brady’s backup role to son-of-a Super Bowl winner Brian Griese and ill-conceived timeshare plan with two-sport “superstar” Drew Henson only added fuel to the fire for the Michigan man. Meanwhile, Manning’s heir to the throne status included signing with Tennessee rather than Ole Miss — to side step Archie’s 18 mph legacy in Oxford — and being “snubbed” by the Heisman voters in favor of Brady’s UM teammate Charles Woodson. As fate would have it, Brady’s hard road to the top is his best asset, and Manning’s tremendous advantages have spoiled him in subtle ways.

When times are tough, Tom Terrific has an aura of calm confidence, convincing his team the impossible is within reach — which has been true for a man who personifies the American dream. On the other side, Peyton often makes a “Manning face” because his teammates don’t live up to his own amazing talent and lofty expectations. As is the case in all walks of life, it’s not so much what they do as how they do it.

Brady also leads Manning in nearly every category of worth. Brady posted a league-leading 76.6 winning percentage (105–32) after defeating Manning head-to-head in Week 11. He also carries a 14–4 mark in the playoffs and trails only Joe Montana (4) and Terry Bradshaw (4) with three Super Bowl wins.

Granted, Manning may have more individual awards and better career statistics, but Brady stacks up well with one MVP, two Super Bowl MVPs and the greatest statistical season in history — throwing for 4,806 yards, 50 TDs and eight INTs for a 117.2 rating during a 16–0 year in 2007.

Both are among the best ever. But, when “it” really matters, Brady is the best.

– Nathan Rush

Teaser:
Who's Better: Peyton Manning or Tom Brady?
Post date: Thursday, November 25, 2010 - 16:43
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/monday-recap/gimme-five
Body:

Gimme Five

Jimmie Johnson is still the king of the road following his unprecedented fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship.

"Unbelievable!" Johnson shouted over the radio to his crew after clinching the title by 39 points over runner-up Denny Hamlin. "You guys are the best! I cannot believe we did this! Unbelievable!"

Johnson's second place finish to Carl Edwards in the Ford 400 at Miami-Homestead was more than enough to get the job done, especially with Hamlin struggling to finish 14th. The champagne flowed after the race, as Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and Co. celebrated the most exciting finish in the history of the Chase for the Cup.

This was a great day not only for Johnson but also for NASCAR. After being widely criticized for its ever-changing Chase "playoff" formula, the three-man shootout between Johnson, Hamlin and Kevin Harvick gave the Chase the credibility it had been lacking — at least for one year.

Unlike years past, when the Miami-Homestead stop was essentially a coronation, Johnson actually had to fight to the finish to win it all this season. And that made the victory taste even sweeter, for Johnson's team, the NASCAR governing body and race fans watching at home.

"It's not that the other Chases weren't competitive," explained Johnson. "We were stronger I think in the previous two Chases, at least. Maybe all four. But this one, I'm just so proud."

Man For All Seasons

Little Danny Woodhead stole the show from big names like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning during the Patriots' 31–28 win over the Colts.

The 5'8", 195-pound jack of all trades from Division II Chadron State — who was cut by the Jets before landing with Pats — had seven carries for 69 yards and a highlight reel 36-yard touchdown, while hauling in four catches for 21 yards.

Granted, Brady completed 19-of-25 passes for 186 yards, two scoring strikes and no interceptions. And the "Law Firm" BenJarvus Green-Ellis added 21 carries for 96 yards and one trip to the end zone. But the Indy defense had no answer for Woodhead, who lines up everywhere on the field and has a knack for making big plays when they matter most.

"I do everything to make the play, whether I'm a runner, a receiver or on a kickoff," said Woodhead. "I'm not too worried what everybody thinks about my size, weight or height. My worry is about doing my job, whatever that might be."

M.I.A. Heat

After losing sharpshooter Mike Miller to a thumb injury prior to the start of the season, the Miami Heat may be forced to play without Udonis Haslem. The veteran power forward suffered a torn ligament in his left foot and will likely miss over a month.

With an 8–5 start already putting a chink in the Heat armor, the last thing LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh need is to lose their reliable enforcer, who is a sturdy defender, strong rebounder and clutch mid-range shot-maker from the baseline.

At some point before the playoffs, the Heat will need to have their full arsenal playing well together. Otherwise, there probably won't be any championship parades in South Beach in 2011.


 

Teaser:
Jimmie Johnson wins unprecedented fifth straight Cup championship.
Post date: Monday, November 22, 2010 - 10:22
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/taking-sides/new-sheriff
Body:

Should Jason Garrett be the Cowboys' coach in 2011?

YES

There is no doubt that Jason Garrett has earned the privilege — or burden, depending on how you look at it — of being the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys in 2011.

The son of a coach, Garrett played quarterback at Princeton, where he was the Ivy League Player of the Year in 1988. Then, he played pro ball from 1989-2004, highlighted by his 1993-99 stint in Dallas — where he backed up Troy Aikman and won Super Bowls XXVIII and XXX.

After playing under the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer and Jon Gruden, Garrett immediately graduated to the coaching ranks. Following two seasons with the Dolphins as Nick Saban’s quarterbacks coach (2005-06), Garrett came back to the Cowboys as Wade Phillip’s offensive coordinator (2007) and assistant head coach (2008-10) before ultimately taking over after Week 9 this season.

Now Garrett is in the crosshairs as the interim coach of “America’s Team” — which is closer to the No. 1 overall pick than their preseason goal of hosting Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium. Garrett is charged with changing the undisciplined culture of a team that got off to a 1–7 start under Phillips. But no matter how many wins Garrett is able to coax from the new-look Boys, the 44-year-old should return next season.

Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones makes the final decision. And Jones’ track record — namely his firing of Tom Landry and Johnson — indicates he is power hungry above all else. Why would Bill Cowher, Gruden or any other proven winner want to deal with that? And why would Jones want his authority questioned?

For better or worse, Garrett is the guy in Dallas. He has a strong football resume, a history with the franchise and will not threaten Jones’ status as the Cowboys’ sheriff.

– Nathan Rush

NO

By all means, to save the Dallas Cowboys, let’s turn to the guy who helped ruin the franchise to begin with. While we’re at it, why don’t we enlist Don King to clean up boxing? Or make Barry Bonds the MLB anti-doping czar?

Jason Garrett is part of the problem in Dallas. Let’s look at the statistical evidence for such an assertion. Garrett was handed the keys to the Cowboy offense in 2007. That season, to his credit, he took what had been the NFL’s fifth-best offense (360.5 ypg in 2006) and made it the NFL’s third-best offense (365.7 ypg). Again, to his credit, Garrett parlayed those extra five yards per game into a $3 million contract for 2008, making him the highest-paid assistant coach in the NFL.

How did he reward the faith that Jerry Jones placed in him, not to mention the money that Jones transferred into his bank account? By overseeing the NFL’s 13th-best offense in 2008 (344.5 ypg).

Garrett continued his sleight of hand by maneuvering past the decline into head-coaching interest from such franchises as the Ravens, Falcons, Rams, Lions and Broncos. Instead, though, Garrett had his sights set on the Cowboys job and remained in Big D.

Another year at the helm of the Cowboys offense did result in the league’s second-best offense (399.4 ypg), but Garrett’s charges had an alarming inability to turn those yards into points; the Cowboys ranked 14th in the NFL in 2009 with 22.6 points per game, down from 28.4 in Garrett’s first year as coordinator.

And that brings us to 2010. Garrett’s offense has produced an alarming number of turnovers and red zone failures, again failing time and again to turn yards into all-important points. Clearly, the Cowboys reached their offense zenith in Garrett’s first year and have been vainly struggling to recapture that formula since.

Wade Phillips wasn’t the answer in Dallas. Neither is his right-hand man.
 
– Rob Doster

Teaser:
Jason Garrett has paid his dues en route to being the Cowboys interim coach. But will the former backup quarterback be the head coach in Big D in 2011?
Post date: Thursday, November 18, 2010 - 10:32
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/monday-recap/yes-we-cam
Body:

Yes We CamAuburn quarterback Cam Newton

Auburn won the SEC West and clinched a spot in the SEC title game for the fourth time (1997, 2000, 2004, 2010) in school history with its 49–31 victory over Georgia in the south's oldest rivalry.

The Tigers were carried once again by embattled quarterback Cam Newton, who completed 12-of-15 passes for 148 yards, two TDs and one INT, while rushing 30 times for 151 yards and two trips to the end zone on the ground.

After crying "War Eagle" en route to Auburn's third 11–0 start (2004, 1993), the Tiger faithful must now survive an off week of questions surround the eligibility of Newton before a showdown with Alabama in the Iron Bowl. But as the sellout crowd of 87,451 proved on Saturday, Auburn is standing behind its smiling Heisman Trophy contender quarterback — who is the first player in SEC history and the eighth ever to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a single season.

"Cameron Newton is one of the young men on our football team that has not only excelled as a tremendous athlete, he has done everything we have asked him to do since the day he stepped on campus at Auburn," said coach Gene Chizik.

"I'm wasting my time addressing allegations that completely, to be frank, blow my mind that they're even out there. … I'm standing up here on a very important week trying to defend something that, quite frankly, is garbage.

"Is there a wizard behind the curtain? I don't know. Is there one, is there two, are there 10? I don't know and I don't care. But what I do care about is coming to the defense of not only a great football player, but a great human being who comes from a great family."

Patriot Reign

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady improved to 6–1 all-time against the Steelers, winning his fourth in five trips to Heinz Field, 39–26, on Sunday night.

One week after an embarrassing loss to Cleveland, an emotional and noticeably more vocal Brady completed 30-of-43 passes for 350 yards, three scoring strikes and zero picks, while avoiding being sacked by the Steel Curtain defense.

New England now owns a league-leading 7–2 record and appear to be a serious Super Bowl contender after many predicted Bill Belichick's team would take a step back this season.

Boy, Oh Boy

The Cowboys turned the lights out on the Giants in New Jersey, with a 33–20 victory in interim coach Jason Garrett's debut on the sideline.

After being outscored 121–59 over Wade Phillips' final three games — losses to the Packers, Jaguars and Giants — the Boys bounced back with their second win of the season on Sunday. Although Dallas is still among the bottom of the barrel in the league standings, the NFC East victory over rival New York was a major move in the right direction for Garrett and the new regime.

"This was a little step. But it sure was timely," said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. "It is more timely, I think, than it is big. We needed this and our fans needed it."

Flipping Fuel

"Cousin Carl" Edwards back-flipped off the 99 car after ending a 70-race winless drought at the Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix, while Chase leader Denny Hamlin fell short on fuel after leading a race-high 190 laps.

Hamlin finished a disappointing 12th and watched his lead over Jimmie Johnson shrink from 33 to just 15 points heading into Homestead for what will be the closest Chase for the Cup finale in the playoff format's history.

Teaser:
Auburn's Cam Newton, the Patriot reign and a big win for Big D's new coach.
Post date: Monday, November 15, 2010 - 10:02
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/taking-sides/super-bowl-saints
Body:

Can the Saints repeat as Super Bowl champs?

YES

Tell owner Tom Benson to break out his fleur-de-lis umbrella and fire up the New Orleans jazz band, because the Saints will be marching to Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium.

And the return to Big D for this season’s big game will be a homecoming of sorts for coach Sean Payton, who served as the Cowboys’ assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach from 2003-05, as well as quarterback Drew Brees, who led Austin’s Westlake HS to a 16–0 record and Texas 5A state title at the old Texas Stadium as a senior in 1996.

The stage is set for Payton and Brees to lead the Saints on another Super Bowl run. Following a Week 10 bye, New Orleans hosts inconsistent Seattle, travels to down-and-out Dallas, goes to “Who Dat?” little brother Cincinnati and hosts upstart St. Louis. Those are four very winnable games for a team that currently sits at 6–3 overall with a 3–1 mark in the NFC South. If all goes well, the final three weeks of the season — at Baltimore, at Atlanta and Tampa Bay — will determine whether the Saints enter the postseason with a first-round bye or a wild card berth.

Led by Payton and Brees — who are slowly evolving into the NFC’s version of Belichick and Brady — this year’s team has fought through injuries to running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas, along with All-Pro safety Darren Sharper. The second-half return of all three playmakers should bring back the Saints’ Super Bowl swagger.

Expect another Bourbon Street bash that becomes an extended Mardi Gras party — with Payton calling the shots (onside kick to open the second half, anyone?), Brees leading the troops and aggressive defensive coordinator Gregg Williams unleashing end Will Smith, tackle Sedrick Ellis, middle ’backer Jonathan Vilma and Sharper.

Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints? Nobody — again.

– Nathan Rush

NO

Ever since John Elway sailed into the sunset following his second straight Super Bowl win, we’ve had more Brett Favre “retirements” than repeat champions. In the last decade, only the 2005 New England Patriots have managed to pull a back-to-back. It’s more likely for a team to miss the playoffs the year after a Super Bowl win than it is to repeat. Throw in the fact that the Saints haven’t really played all that well this season, and the answer is simple: Enjoy the Vince Lombardi Trophy while you can, Saints fans — it ain’t going to be in your possession much longer.

The Saints have been able to camouflage their deficiencies for much of the season. But they’ve also revealed some clear weaknesses, starting with, of all places, the quarterback position. No player is more important to his team’s success than Drew Brees, and Brees has been a mere shadow of his 2009 self. In tossing 12 picks through nine games, Brees has already exceeded last year’s total. In the Saints’ three losses this year, Brees has thrown an alarming nine interceptions after throwing 11 all of last season. Now comes word that Brees may be battling a fracture and a torn meniscus in his knee, a possibly crippling blow to a team that lives and dies with its quarterback.

The Saints are still piling up yardage, but they’re not converting their opportunities. After leading the NFL in scoring in 2009, averaging 31.9 points per game, the Saints are scoring at a pedestrian 22.3 clip. Their rushing attack (93.7 ypg) is one of the NFL’s worst, and unless Brees starts clicking — an unknown given his output thus far and his questionable health — this offense is out of options.

Last season, the Saints rode homefield advantage in the playoffs all the way to the Super Bowl. This time around, with a closing trio of games against Baltimore, Atlanta and Tampa Bay, the Saints will struggle merely to make the postseason.

Who dat say the Saints won’t repeat? Me, dat’s who.

– Rob Doster

Teaser:
With an inconsistent 6–3 record entering their bye week, can the New Orleans Saints repeat as Super Bowl champions?
Post date: Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - 21:28
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/monday-recap/more-les
Body:

More with LesLSU coach Les Miles

It shouldn’t be a surprise when a one-loss team beats another one-loss team in a conference rivalry game. But Saturday afternoon's Alabama at LSU showdown was no ordinary matchup.

Perception is reality and, entering this SEC West brawl, reigning BCS champ Alabama was seen as a national title contender, while underdog host LSU was viewed by many as a fluke — thanks to “lucky” Les Miles’ good fortune in several close calls this season. So, even though there were other upsets around the country, none had the same impact as this Death Valley thriller.

As he’s done all season, the Mad Hatter rolled the dice — most notably with a fourth-and-1 reverse call that resulted in a momentum-shifting 23-yard run by DeAngelo Peterson to set up a one-yard go-ahead TD by Stevan Ridley.

In between a fiery pregame speech and a postgame romp with the fans in the stands, LSU’s emotional leader, linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, recorded an INT and a fumble recovery after a strip sack by unblockable tackle Drake Nevis.

"We get great leadership from our guys," said Miles. "Kelvin Sheppard is a great leader, as well as Drake Nevis. It's just the way it's supposed to be. It's certainly a great experience, and I'm very thankful to have had it. I promise you I will cherish it for a lifetime."

The Bayou Bengals and Miles not only knocked off the Crimson Tide and former LSU coach Nick Saban, they earned some long overdue respect during their 24–21 “upset.”

"College football was celebrated today," said Miles. "That was two quality football teams slugging, start to finish, hard-nosed, clean, violent, competitive football, and how wonderful was it?

"I have to say this: Tiger Stadium was never any better than it was today, never any better."

Mission Statement

TCU made a strong statement during a 47–7 domination at Utah. The Horned Frogs have now outscored their Mountain West Conference foes 236–23 in six league games this season, allowing just three touchdowns during that stretch.

In front of a stunned Salt Lake City crowd, TCU quarterback Andy Dalton completed 21-of-26 passes for 355 yards, three scoring strikes and zero picks in a game that "showed we can play with anybody," according to the senior. Receiver Josh Boyce was the primary benefactor, taking his three catches for 126 yards (42.0 ypc) and two trips to the end zone. Boyce scored the game's first two touchdowns, covering 26 and 93 yards, respectively. And the team from Fort Worth, Texas, never looked back.

From the start, the Utes were no match for the aggressive Horned Frogs defense, falling behind 40–0 until a fourth-quarter score put them on the board. Utah turned the ball over four times, posted just 199 yards of total offense and lost the time of possession battle 39:06-to-20:54.

"We had no answers," said Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn, following a highly-anticipated and embarrassing home loss.

Texas Two Step

And then there were two. Races, that it. Following a wild ride at the AAA Texas 500 — where Denny Hamlin took the checkers along with a 33-point lead over four-time reigning champ Jimmie Johnson — there are only two more stops in the Chase for the Cup.

Next week, NASCAR rolls into Phoenix before finishing out the season at Homestead-Miami in what could be the first Chase that goes down to the final race — and maybe even the final lap — of the season.
 

Teaser:
LSU upended Alabama, while TCU and Denny Hamlin made championship statements in the BCS and Chase for the Cup, respectively.
Post date: Sunday, November 7, 2010 - 21:22
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/question-week/moving-moss
Body:

Were the Vikings right to cut Randy Moss?

YES

Let’s see: In a space of a few weeks in Minnesota, Randy Moss alienated fans, teammates and coaches; launched into some bizarre postgame performance art after the loss to the Patriots, conducting a five-minute monologue in which he extolled his former team and coach while expressing disappointment with his current boss; and, as a final straw, insulted the caterer at a postgame event, apparently viewing the food provided by a popular Minneapolis eatery and shouting, ‘What the (expletive) is this? I wouldn’t feed this (expletive expletive) to my (expletive) dog!’ According to the caterer, Gus Tinucci, “If (Brett) Favre would have had a ball, he would have beaned him right in the head.”

Having failed at the most basic NFL tasks of team-building and positive community relations, Moss could have at least provided a jolt of positive energy on the field.

But what did the Vikings get in return for this seemingly unending series of headaches? In his ballyhooed return to Minnesota, Moss caught only 13 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns in four games. That stat line reads like a single-game effort during Moss’ spectacular prime in his first Vikings go-round.

He may be one of the two or three greatest receivers in history, but Randy Moss was a disaster during his short second tenure in the Twin Cities. To be even more blunt, Moss was a cancer that had to be excised before it spread and destroyed what was left of the Vikings’ fragile franchise.

This team, which had Super Bowl hopes heading into the season, is hanging by a thread. Coach Brad Childress and Favre are sniping at one another through the media, and Favre is dealing with a sex scandal back in New York. Washing its hands of the Moss disaster? A no-brainer for this troubled franchise.

– Rob Doster

NO

If Brad Childress really wanted to do what was “in the best interests of the Minnesota Vikings, both in the short and long term,” then the incompetent coach would be stepping down from his post and leaving the Twin Cities, rather than waiving Randy Moss, in what appears to be a weak attempt to place blame on someone other than himself.

The reality is the Vikings need Moss now more than ever. Minnesota’s receiving corps has Sidney Rice (hip) learning to walk before he can run, Percy Harvin (ankle) limping around in between migraines and Bernard Berrian (head) having mentally checked out due to lack of involvement in the offense this year.

Without Moss, the burden of moving the chains falls almost entirely on the shoulders of running back Adrian Peterson and the fractured foot of 41-year-old Brett Favre. Regardless of whether Moss made big plays or not, the 6'4", 210-pound ultimate deep threat drew attention and opened up the field for A.P., Harvin and, ultimately, Favre.

By all accounts, Moss is healthy. And upon arriving back in Minnesota — where he enjoyed five Pro Bowl years over his first seven seasons in the NFL from 1998-2004 — Moss was happy, looking forward to his reunion with the purple people in the stands and a chance to finally play with Favre. Something happened between then and now. Childress either never earned, or immediately lost, the respect of Moss, who made Favre-ian criticisms of the coach’s lack of interest in how to stop a Patriots offense that Moss thrived in to the tune of 3,904 yards and 50 TDs over 52 games in New England.

Also, Vikings owner Zygi Wilf reportedly was “not happy” about Moss being waived after the team traded a 2011 third-rounder for him one month prior.

In the “best interests of the Minnesota Vikings, both in the short and long term,” Childress limited his playcalling options, put more pressure on injured players, annoyed his owner, wasted a high draft pick and divided his locker room. Brilliant move, Brad.

– Nathan Rush

Teaser:
Vikings coach Brad Childress made the bold move to waive Randy Moss. Was it the right course of action to take?
Post date: Thursday, November 4, 2010 - 11:25
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/monday-recap/gigantic-win
Body:

Gigantic Win

Former Rangers owner and ex-President George W. Bush may have thrown out the first pitch — with father and fellow ex-President George H.W. Bush standing nearby and Hall of Fame pitcher and current Rangers owner Nolan Ryan behind the plate — but it was 21-year-old Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner who wielded power during a 4–0 San Francisco victory in Texas.

The Giants took a commanding 3–1 World Series lead over the Rangers following a brilliant effort from Bumgarner and bearded-man Brian Wilson. The young rookie allowed three hits, walked two and stuck out six batters over eight innings, while the trendsetting Beach Boy namesake slammed the door with a scoreless two-strikeout ninth inning.

Halloween’s favorite team, San Francisco scared claw and antlers crazed Texas with a superb pitching effort from Bumgarner, who had better command of his stuff than any starter has during this year’s World Series.

“He was as good as I’ve seen him,” said San Fran catcher Buster Posey, who helped the Giants’ cause with solo home run. “He was in and out, really. The first couple of innings he might have yanked a couple of fastballs, but after that he was unreal.”

Now the stage is set for a Game 5 showdown between aces Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee at the Ballpark in Arlington on Monday night.

The Giants will attempt to clinch their first World Series title since moving to San Francisco in 1958, and the franchise’s first since Willie Mays went all over-the-shoulder in 1954. Meanwhile, the Rangers will desperately try to fight off elimination and move one step closer to becoming the first team to win it all after falling in a 3–1 hole since the Royals in 1985.

Numero Uno

The revolving door at No. 1 continues. The latest in the Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Auburn lineage, the Oregon Ducks have flown to the top of the BCS standings following an impressive 53–32 win in USC’s self-proclaimed bowl game at the L.A. Coliseum.

Along with being No. 1 in both the human and computer polls, UO now boasts the top-ranked total offense (572.9 ypg), scoring offense (54.9 ppg) and turnover margin (plus-1.63) as a team, while Heisman hopeful running back LaMichael James leads the nation in total yards (189.6 ypg), rushing yards (172.9 ypg) and individual scoring (12.9 ppg).

Tiger Tamed

While Oregon was busy taking over the top spot in all polls known to man, Tiger Woods fell from No. 1 for the first time since 2005. After 281 consecutive weeks at No. 1, Tiger has been tamed — by his own bad play and personal turmoil.

“I’m not ranked No. 1 in the world,” Tiger admitted while at a tournament in Japan. “In order to do that you have to win and I didn’t win this year.”

England’s Lee Westwood reached the pinnacle of the sport to become the first European since Nick Faldo was on top in 1994. Westwood joins Vijay Singh as the only players to overtake Woods since he originally took the throne at No. 1 way back in 1997.

Westwood’s stay may be brief, however, as he, Phil Mickelson, Martin Kaymer and Woods all have a shot to earn the No. 1 ranking with a strong showing at this week’s HSBC Champions tournament in Yokohama.

Favre Falls

Down but not out, 41-year-old Vikings quarterback Brett Favre was knocked out following a chin-splitting hit from Patriots defensive tackle Myron Pryor during a 28–18 loss at New England.

Bloodied on the ground, helped off the field and carted to the locker room for stitches, the fate of Favre appeared to be in doubt. But as he’s done countless times, the graybeard gunslinger plans to fight through the injury and is confident he will be able to start next week when the Cardinals visit Minnesota.

“Nobody knows my body like me,” said Favre, who has started 292 consecutive games. “There were plenty of times I should’ve been knocked out and wasn’t. I should be ready to play next week.”
 

Teaser:
The Giants pitched their way to a 3–1 World Series lead over the Rangers, while the Ducks took over No. 1, Tiger lost top billing and Favre fell hard.
Post date: Monday, November 1, 2010 - 09:53
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/question-week/schedule-conflict
Body:

Should the NFL expand to an 18-game regular season?

YES

I’ll start my answer with a question of my own: Is there anything more boring and worthless than preseason NFL football? Fans are charged regular prices to watch a couple series with the starters as they play a dull, close-to-the-vest brand of football before turning things over to an assortment of no-names, hangers-on, career backups and wannabes. I’m all for anything that would cut this four-game charade in half — and that’s the primary beauty of the proposed 18-game regular season, which would simply replace two worthless preseason games with two meaningful regular-season contests.

Bottom line: This proposal is good for everybody. It expands the league’s economic opportunities in a difficult business climate, which is good for players and owners alike. It gives fans a better bang for their hard-earned buck, and it ends the ridiculous rip-off that is the four-game preseason.

As for the injury argument, well, I have an answer for that, too: Increase the size of the active roster and practice squads to give coaches more flexibility and depth.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell offered this succinct explanation when the proposal first started gaining momentum: “What it represents to us is a way to grow the game and grow the opportunities, not only for our fans and our business partners, but for the players as our partners,” he said. “We have to continually look at ways to improve what we’re doing. It’s been very clear to us from not only our fans but also from our players that the quality of the preseason and the desire to participate in the preseason is not at the level it should be.”

Let’s put it this way: Can any proposal that gives us more of what we want — NFL games that count — be wrong? I don’t think so.

– Rob Doster

NO

If Commissioner Roger Goodell was truly concerned with player safety, he would be the most outspoken opponent of an 18-game schedule. But the reality is that the shoot-first, ask-questions-later leader isn’t concerned with protecting the integrity of the game or the men who built the billion-dollar mint we call the NFL.

As always, the bottom line is the bottom line. Or, as it is said in election years, “It’s the economy, stupid.” So, Goodell leads the NFL blindly into dangerous territory — willing to sacrifice not only the long-term physical and mental health of “his” players but also the sport itself — all while preaching safety and honoring history in interviews.

The move from 16 to 18 games is not a wise investment in the quality of the product the NFL sells. It is the exact opposite; it is an uninformed money grab by Goodell and the league’s 32 owners. Yet, due to the additional television revenue, ticket sales and concession inflation, the move is a “fait accompli” — an irreversible accomplishment — according to Colts president Bill Polian.

“I think that the owners, and principally the commissioner, have decided that it’s the way to go,” said Polian, on his radio show. “The debate, such as it was, is over.”

It’s unrealistic to expect players to stay healthy for 18 games plus the playoffs. Or worse, it’s an unconscionable concession to consider the inevitable, watered-down, replacement-player on-field exhibition just part of the cost of doing business.

“Sixteen games are enough,” explained Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, a 35-year-old, 15th-year veteran, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl XXXV MVP. “We’re not automobiles. We’re not machines. We’re humans. … How many people would be truly healthy after 18 games? Are you going to get real football?”

Who cares? Right, Roger? Just put NFL helmets on UFL players and play preseason lineups in regular season games. What’s the difference?

– Nathan Rush

Teaser:
With the NFL cracking down on "violent hits," talk of expanding the regular season from 16 to 18 games has become even more debatable than it already was.
Post date: Wednesday, October 27, 2010 - 19:23
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/monday-recap/weekend-wrapup
Body:

Pitching Ain’t EasyGiants ace Tim Lincecum

The World Series lineup is finally set. The National League champion San Francisco Giants will face off against the American League champion Texas Rangers, with the first pitch of Game 1 on Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

Pitching is at premium, with the G-Men proving that their starting rotation of four aces — Cy guy Game 1 starter Tim Lincecum, no-hitter-throwing lefty Jonathan Sanchez, batters-box brother-slaying Matt Cain and 21-year-old phenom rookie Madison Bumgarner — are more valuable than even the Yankees $200 million payroll. That is, if winning results matter more than TV, merchandise and concession revenues.

Not known for pitching in a hitters’ park, Nolan Ryan’s Rangers were led this far by playoff prodigy Cliff Lee, who is a perfect 7–0 with a 1.26 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and 67 Ks in 64.1 IP over eight career postseason starts. Lee and Lincecum will go toe-to-toe on the rubber in Game 1 for the best playoff pitching duel since… well, Lee vs. Pettitte or Lincecum vs. Halladay a few days ago.

The year of the pitcher has become the playoffs of the pitcher. In an era of steroids favoring home run heavy hitters, the pendulum has swung back. But not everyone is able to keep up with the fastball of change, even after a full season of preparation.

“Everybody’s saying the Phillies didn’t hit. But they didn’t hit because we pitched this well. That’s why we really won the series,” said frustrated Giants GM Brian Sabean, during a champagne-soaked Game 6 postgame celebration win over the Phillies.

Once the Barry Bonds face of inflated hitting statistics, the San Fran franchise now embodies all that is pitching at its finest. Although the Giants ranked ninth in scoring and first in grounded-into-double-plays, the squad is playing for just its third World Series title — after losing in 1989 and 2002 — since moving to the Bay Area in 1958.

“They are a very solid team,” said embattled Rangers manager Ron Washington. “They can certainly pitch. And when you get to this point, pitching is the most important thing. … The two best teams are playing. That’s the way it should be.”

War Eagle

Auburn is the well-deserved No. 1 team in the second edition of the BCS rankings following a 24–17 win over LSU. After the demise of top-ranked Alabama, Oklahoma and BCS one-and-done Oklahoma in three consecutive weeks, there was really only one team — with all due respect to Oregon and Boise State — that should be atop the meaningless midseason rankings.

Heisman Trophy favorite quarterback Cam Newton continues to steal headlines and break records, with a career-high 217 yards and two trips to the end zone against the SEC’s top-ranked Bayou Bengal defense. The Florida transfer broke the conference’s single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback while also completing 10-of-16 passes for 86 yards in victory.

More than a one-man show, the Tigers also have a disruptive defense led by 300-pound junior tackle Nick Fairley, who was nearly unblockable during a 2.5-sack effort against the then-other undefeated Tigers from Baton Rouge.

At this rate, the Iron Bowl at Alabama will be not only a de factor SEC West title game but possibly a play-in to the BCS National Championship Game — that is, unless anyone from the SEC East (South Carolina? Florida? Georgia?) can put up a fight.

Brett Favre Bowl III

The 41-year-old graybeard gunslinger couldn’t win any of the coin toss calls in what could be his final business trip to Green Bay, as Brett Favre and Minnesota lost a controversial division showdown, 28–24, at Lambeau Field.

Favre completed just 16-of-29 passes for 212 yards, one touchdown and three costly interceptions — including a third-quarter pick-six to linebacker Desmond Bishop — in a bittersweet loss in Title Town.

Unlike last season, when tempers ran hot, the Green Bay crowd seemed more appreciative — if not protective — of the three-time MVP and Super Bowl XXXI winner who limped off the field with a bum leg and is currently under NFL investigation for sexual harassment of former Jets employee Jenn Sterger.

If this was indeed Favre’s last stand in Green Bay, it ended dramatically. Booth review overturned a potential game-winning scoring strike to Percy Harvin in the back of the end zone with 48 seconds remaining. Then, Favre slipped, regained his footing and sailed one last-ditch effort out of the back of the zone on fourth-and-15 from the 20.

As with most highly anticipated televised events, Favre’s career at Lambeau Field “ended” not with a bang but a whimper, with the Packers improving to 4–3 and the Vikings falling to 2–4.
 

Teaser:
Brett Favre Bowl III, World Series pitching and a "War Eagle" BCS battle cry.
Post date: Monday, October 25, 2010 - 01:35
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/weekend-wrap/weekend-wrap
Body:

Jenn StergerFalling Stars

The Vikings and Cowboys went head-to-head in a battle of 1–3 teams desperate to make a move. Not of the alleged Brett Favre on Jenn Sterger kind, but of the avoiding the garbage can after only five games variety.

Garbage can, huh? So that’s what you think I think of you?

In the end, Randy Moss’ homecoming in Minnesota was a celebration, following a tough 24–21 victory. Now Dallas is left claiming that coach Wade Phillips will not be fired midseason, after a 1–4 start to a season that had America’s Team hopeful of becoming the first home team to play for a title when Super Bowl XLV kicks off at the $1.1 billion Cowboys Stadium on February 6, 2011.

The Boys didn’t play like the stars on their helmets against the Vikes. The team coached by a son of a Bum — former NFL coach Bum Phillips, that is — committed 11 penalties for 91 lost yards, not counting several that were declined after big plays by the purple people in pigtails.

But even in victory, Favre will still have to answer Sterger questions. The 41-year-old graybeard is reportedly meeting with league officials on Tuesday. Or at least leaving awkward voice mails after practice.

P.S. - This photo of Jenn Sterger is one from her state of Florida rent-a-fan days. Brent Musberger remembers her as a FSU cowgirl; Athlon Sports photographed her in South Florida cowgirl gear not so long ago.

Number None?

This week marks the first time in recent memory that there is no clear cut No. 1 team in college football — with the possible exception of the week after LSU’s Les Miles was “crowned” champion with the only two-loss title team in the history of the BS, er, BCS computer formula system.

Oklahoma is booming in the BCS rankings, Oregon has soared atop the AP poll and Boise State is certainly blue after being the victim of what could be viewed as a weeklong Freudian slip on the part of speculative media outlets who thought the Smurfs would be the BMOC of the first BCS poll.

But most casual fans and serious fanatics still think Alabama and Ohio State are the football factories that build the best product for a legit Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game. Or, more accurately, that Bama and the Buckeyes have the most NFL talent and the most consistent coaches — even if the Nick-tator and the Sweater Vest aren’t nearly as fun to watch as the Mad Hatter.

Luckily, at this point in the year there can be a placeholder as the top team. There can be a good old-fashioned debate over who’s who. The polls don’t matter until the bowls. If there is a five-team debate after conference championship week, then we’ll have a problem — or maybe the start of a playoff solution?

Alphabet Soup

B, C and S aren’t the only three letters being thrown around. The ALCS and NLCS are even more relevant. After all, this is October, isn’t it?

In the designated slugger league, the Yankees and Rangers are tied at one game apiece. But there is panic in pinstripes, with wild man A.J. Burnett being seriously talked about as the Bronx Bombers’ Game 4 starter.

Not only did Burnett plunk two batters in a recent simulated game (sounds like he was trying to simulate reality, huh?), but he carried a 10–15 record, 5.26 ERA and 1.51 WHIP in 33 starts this season, with a combined 1–7 mark, 6.62 ERA in his last 12 starts.

Why worry about Game 4 already? Because the Rangers have lefty ace Cliff Lee — and his 6–0 record, 1.44 ERA, 0.78 WHIP and 54 strikeouts in 56.1 innings over seven career postseason starts for two different teams — in Game 3. But he will be pitching against the all-time winningest playoff pitcher, fellow lefty Andy Pettitte (19–9 in 41 starts).

Meanwhile, in the swinging pitchers’ side of the bracket, the Phillies and Giants are also tied up at 1–1 after midseason acquisition Roy Oswalt struck out nine batters and allowed just one run in eight innings on Sunday night.

Heading back to AT&T Park in San Francisco, the Game 3 pitchers dual between Matt Cain and Cole Hamels should be a good one.

 

Teaser:
The Vikings beat the Cowboys to avoid throwing away their season. Garbage can, huh? Meanwhile, no one knows who's No. 1 in college football and the MLB Playoffs are all tied up.
Post date: Monday, October 18, 2010 - 01:34
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /college-football/over-top
Body:

Oklahoma's DeMarco MurrayAfter listening to panicked college football fans and analysts complain that Boise State would be the No. 1 team in the first BCS poll, the real winner turned out to be Oklahoma — coincidentally, the team that put the BCS-busting Smurf Turfers on the map in a wild, flee-flicker, Statue-of-Liberty, marriage-proposal-filled Fiesta Bowl a few years back.

“Big Game” Bob Stoops’ club jumped over the competition thanks in large part to a strength of schedule that includes wins over Florida State, Texas, Air Force, Cincinnati, Utah State and Iowa State.

As the BCS dominoes fell, top-ranked Ohio State lost, the Red River rival Longhorns upset Nebraska and the Sooners landed on top of the football world, at least for this week.

The season’s first Bowl Championship Series poll — which is comprised of seven computer polls and two human polls (Harris and USA Today) — had new AP No. 1 Oregon as the second-best team in the country, with Boise State, Auburn and TCU rounding out the top five:

1. Oklahoma
2. Oregon
3. Boise State
4. Auburn
5. TCU
6. LSU
7. Michigan State
8. Alabama
9. Utah
10. Ohio State
11. Missouri
12. Stanford
13. Wisconsin
14. Oklahoma State
15. Iowa
16. Nebraska
17. Florida State
18. Arizona
19. Texas
20. West Virginia
21. South Carolina
22. Kansas State
23. Arkansas
24. Mississippi State
25. Virginia Tech
 

Teaser:
Post date: Sunday, October 17, 2010 - 22:56
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /college-football/et-tu-brutus
Body:

Wisconsin's John ClayFor the second straight week, the No. 1 team in the country was upset on the road — with top-ranked Ohio State stumbling 31–18 at Wisconsin after preseason favorite Alabama lost 35–21 at South Carolina last week.

The Maurice Clarett-style one and done OSU run as the No. 1 team in the nation was ill-fated, lasting just seven days before the Badgers knocked the Buckeyes from their perch. A rowdy crowd of 81,194 at Camp Randall Stadium witnessed the first Wisconsin win over a No. 1-ranked Ohio State team since 1942.

“It was quite a battle here at Camp Randall and tip your cap to the Badgers. They did things you need to do to win a tough ball game,” said Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who falls to 29–9 in Big Ten road games and 100–22 overall in his 10th season in Columbus.

“I was proud of the way our kids fought back. It was 21–3 there and I think a lesser bunch in an environment like this would have folded their tent.”

In a heavyweight Big Ten showdown in prime time, Bucky Badger jumped out to a 21–0 lead early in the second quarter on the strength of a 97-yard opening kickoff touchdown by David Gilreath and a pair of touchdown runs by bruising back John Clay, who finished with 21 carries for 104 yards.

The dazed Scarlet-and-Gray of Brutus Buckeye battled back to pull the score within 21–18 in the fourth quarter. But it was not enough, as UW closed the game on a 10–0 run to effectively KO The OSU.

“It felt great finishing this game,” said Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema. “We’ve been in four-quarter games this year, whether by choice or not. We’ve been in them, and I didn’t really think Ohio State had been.”

Ohio State’s Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Terrelle Pryor struggled to complete 14-of-28 passes for 156 yards and one interception, while rushing 18 times for 56 yards. TP2 was particularly ineffective in the fourth quarter — taking two costly sacks for a loss of 18 yards, scrambling three times for seven yards and completing 3-of-9 passes for 45 yards and one interception in the final 15 minutes.

In the end, Wisconsin was able to line up in the victory formation before thousands of Badger fans stormed the field to celebrate their first win over a No. 1-ranked team since 1981.
 

Teaser:
Post date: Sunday, October 17, 2010 - 22:11
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/question-week/front-runners
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Are the Steelers the Super Bowl Favorites?

YES

The other 31 teams in the NFL need to call an audible, because Dick LeBeau has an all-out blitz coming off the edges and up the middle. Hair-raising safety Troy Polamalu, quarterback-slamming linebacker James Harrison and the rest of the Steel Curtain defense are headed straight for the Vince Lombardi Trophy and will not be denied.

Unless someone can step up to stop Blitz-burgh’s championship assault, the Rooney family will be celebrating their seventh Super Bowl victory — and their third in the last six years — in Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium.

All the attention is focused on the return of two-time ringmaster Ben Roethlisberger, who was suspended for the first four games of the season. But the real story is the dominance of LeBeau’s 3-4 defense, which was able to carry the team to a 3–1 record with the combination of veteran Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon subbing for Big Ben. The LeBeau-coordinated defense has established itself as the best in the business by leading the league in the two most important categories — points allowed (12.5 ppg) and rushing yards allowed (62.2 ypg) — with its trademark violent swagger.

But coach Mike Tomlin’s team has all three phases of the game covered. An offense that has been powered by running back Rashard Mendenhall (411 yards, four TDs) will evolve into a more dangerous, balanced attack now that Big Ben is back at the helm — with Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Heath Miller providing proven downfield targets. On special teams, kicker Jeff Reed and punter Daniel Sepulveda are two of the best, while returners Antwaan Randle El and Antonio Brown are a threat to go the distance.

The Steel Curtain is stronger than ever, Big Ben is back in the huddle and Pittsburgh is on a mission. Buckle up your chin strap, NFL. The Steelers are coming.

– Nathan Rush

NO

The Steelers navigated their QB-free opening stretch about as well as could be expected, finishing the first quarter of the season with an impressive 3–1 mark that included road wins at Tampa and Tennessee — all with an offense ranked 31st in passing yards per game. Now that Ben Roethlisberger is back in the fold, conventional wisdom has anointed the Steelers the Super Bowl favorites.

Well, there’s nothing conventional about my wisdom, and I’m here to say that the Steelers will not reach the Super Bowl, much less win it. Big Ben is far more caretaker than difference-maker, and this team’s deficiencies, which have been masked thus far by some inept play from their counterparts on the other sidelines, will be exposed over the long grind of the season. As great as the Steeler defense is, the offense simply has to score more points, and that’s far from automatic, even with its starting quarterback in place. Last season, when the team needed Big Ben to shoulder the load, he responded like a fantasy champion but a real-world also-ran. The defending Super Bowl champs limped to 9–7 and missed the playoffs, scoring only 23 points per game even while Roethlisberger was piling up 4,328 passing yards and 26 TDs.

This season, in Roethlisberger’s absence, Rashard Mendenhall has picked up the slack, with 411 yards rushing through four games. But Mendenhall has never been asked to carry the entire rushing load for an entire season, and it’s unlikely that he can survive the pounding intact. AFC North games like the 17–14 war against the Ravens — in which Mendenhall rushed 25 times for only 79 yards as the Ravens picked up a key division win in Pittsburgh — will take a significant physical toll.

Yes, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is a genius, and yes, that Steel Curtain defense will keep this team in most games. But in terms of meeting Super Bowl goals, that’s not good enough, and neither are Big Ben and the Steelers offense.

– Rob Doster

 

Teaser:
The Pittsburgh Steelers are aiming for their third Super Bowl win in six seasons. But are they the favorites to raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium?
Post date: Monday, October 11, 2010 - 19:18

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