Monday, December 29, 2008
A significant portion of King's Monday Morning Quarterback column today is dedicated to his thoughts on the NFL MVP voting. King has decided to cast his vote for Peyton Manning, with Matt Ryan, Chad Pennington, DeAngelo Williams, and James Harrison rounding out his ballot.
Manning is a solid choice, and might in fact have been the player most valuable to his team. As a Panthers’ fan, I’d strenuously offer biased arguments on behalf of Williams (and will do so below), who led the NFL in rushing touchdowns, total touchdowns, and yards per carry (minimum 200 carries). He was the dominant cog in Carolina’s offense which went 12-4 and earned a division title and #2 playoff seed. But, I can’t objectively argue too much with the overall job Manning did in leading the patchwork Colts to a playoff berth.
In explaining his top-five, King says that Williams “made a late charge for Carolina, scoring 11 touchdowns in four late-season games, but check out the pedestrian first half of his season: The Panthers went 6-2, and Williams rushed for 468 yards and three touchdowns in the six wins.” Part of this statement is actually incorrect; SI.com shows Williams with 522 rushing yards through the first eight games as opposed to the 468 noted by King. Not to nitpick facts, Peter, but they’re called facts for a reason. And, to nitpick further, if you wanted to really present a fair argument you would mention Williams' two receiving touchdowns or the fact that he helped the Panthers' offense gain stability and credibility and develop confidence while Steve Smith sat out the first two games of the season...but why let facts get in the way of a Peyton Manning slurp job disguised as an MVP article?
If the season were eight games long, I’d agree that DeAngelo Williams would not have been the most valuable player in the league. However, it's what Williams did in the second half of the season - as he grew into the best running back in the league - that made him an MVP candidate. Obviously, being the best running back, or even the best offensive player in the league (if you wanted to make such an argument for Williams) doesn’t equate to being the most valuable player. And there are many, many reasons to argue another player as being more “valuable”; that’s the beauty of sports and the fandom that comes alongside it.
So if you wanted to say that Williams isn’t deserving of the MVP award because he had a relatively average first-half of the season, despite his monster second half, I might be content to leave it alone…even though it flies in the face of so many sports clichés about “finishing strong” or “playing hard when it matters”…so long as you’re consistent in applying your argument about having an average first-half to other players you are considering to be most valuable. Because apparently, if you’re coming back from injury and have a “pedestrian” first-half of the season, then all is forgiven in the eyes of Peter King, whether the facts support that argument or not.
“Now onto the MVP issue,” writes King. “My take is Manning was the keystone to this team starting 3-4 instead of being out of it at 1-6. In the final nine games, Manning's 9-0 record led all NFL quarterbacks, Manning's 72-percent accuracy led all NFL quarterbacks, and Manning's 17-to-3 touchdown-to-interception (plus-14) differential led all NFL quarterbacks.”
How do you ignore Williams’ stats over the last eight games (nine, really, since he did also carve up Atlanta in a very meaningful game in week 8) and deride his “pedestrian” first half of the season while ignoring Manning’s stats over that same time frame? Especially when Manning’s numbers were as bad as they were? Is it fair to exclude the fact that Manning threw 10 TD’s against 9 interceptions in those first seven games just because he was injured? Is it fair to exclude discussion of Manning handing Green Bay a victory with a zero TD, two INT day, or the two INT’s that Manning tossed while the Colts choked on a 14-6 lead and lost to Tennessee? Is it revisionist history to laud Manning as the “keystone” to that 3-4 record and, by default, a 2-game swing from King’s aforementioned visions of a 1-6 record without really emphasizing that the Houston game was won by Gary Brackett’s fumble recovery for a touchdown?
While Manning may have gone undefeated in his last nine games, Williams emerged as the most dominant running back in football despite splitting carries with (and losing touchdowns to) rookie Jonathan Stewart. I’d love to see some statistical comparisons of Williams’ last eight games with the second halves of other memorable seasons for running backs, but I think it might be hard to top Williams’ line: 153 carries, 993 yards, 15 TD’s, and a scintillating 6.5 yards per carry. He scored a touchdown in every game of this stretch but one – the season-ender at New Orleans, where he racked up 178 yards (and more than 7 yards per carry). He scored touchdowns when it mattered, including four on the road in Green Bay in a knuckle-biting 35-31 victory and four more in the 34-28 overtime loss to the Giants that would have given the Panthers the first seed in the NFC.
Unfortunately, it is Stewart himself that will probably cost Williams the MVP. In this day and age, despite the fact that many successful teams are gaining their wins by splitting carries between running backs, it seems hard for writers to to vote for one-half of a tandem for MVP – even if one of the members was the best back in the league over the course of the entire season. Because, with apologies to Adrian Peterson (9 fumbles? Really?) and Michael Turner (overall beast but inconsistent from week to week with no-shows in the Falcons’ five losses – 3.6 YPC or less and 81 yards or less in each loss), Williams was indeed the best running back of 2008, whether part of a tandem or not. Or, said differently, Williams shouldn't be penalized for Stewart's 800-plus yards and 10 touchdowns because Williams was clearly more valuable to the team based on how and (usually) when they each were used, and Williams numbers alone stand out as significant regardless of what his backfield teammate accomplished alongside him.
(As an aside, I also wonder how many MVP votes Jon Kasay’s missed field goal at the end of regulation in the Meadowlands cost Williams. If Kasay nailed that kick, then the lead story on Sportscenter would have been the Panthers as the #1 seed and Williams four TD’s in a monster prime-time game, instead of the Giants comeback victory. But I digress, as I often do on my lunch hour...)
In closing the argument for Williams, I’d offer every Carolina fan’s favorite statistic from DeAngelo’s memorable season: zero. As in, the number of times that Williams put the ball on the ground this year. 253 carries, 22 receptions, zero fumbles. Not even zero lost fumbles, mind you – as in, “Williams fumbles but the Panthers get the ball back.” No; Williams didn’t even put the ball on the ground once for the Panthers to lose.
So that’s my case for Williams as MVP. Hey, if you think Manning’s a better choice and was more valuable to his team, I can’t argue with that overall sentiment. I can’t argue much with Matt Ryan either, when you consider the overriding principle of value to one's team.
I’m not arguing that Manning wasn’t the MVP. If we wins, he’s certainly deserving. But at least be consistent in your argument, Peter. You can’t trumpet Manning’s second-half charge – injury-related or not – while dismissing Williams “pedestrian” first half. It’s almost 2009; you have to be better than that.
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Hold Your Horses, Jayson Stark! (or, "Why John Smoltz Shouldn't Make His Cooperstown Plans Just Yet")
Around the Web today, baseball writers hailed the induction of the newest member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, John Smoltz. If his career is indeed over as a result of season-ending shoulder surgery at age 41, then the game has lost a respected member of its club. But is John Smoltz really the first-ballot, shoo-in Hall-of-Famer that the mainstream media is making him out to be?
If you think the answer is "yes," it's probably because you've been reading articles that suggest as much for the last three or four years - including commentary this weekend that Smoltz's injury could have a silver lining in that he could retire this season alongside contemporaries and teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine such that all three could be voted into the Hall at the same time.
But looking at the numbers themselves makes me wonder why respected baseball writers are rushing to write Smoltz's induction speech for Cooperstown…and whether the Smoltz-love will hold up five years from now when he is on the ballot for the first time and the numbers themselves may play a more prominent role.
Make no mistake - Smoltz is one hell of a pitcher, and an exceptional performer over the last 20 years. But the Hall of Fame is only for the best - not just the very good and memorable. So is John Smoltz really one of the best pitchers ever?
Apologies in advance, because we're going to look at a lot of numbers here today. PED's or not, baseball is the sport where the numbers matter the most, even when applying comparisons across generations. However, there will be no apologies for the length. If you're not looking for a good, long read to print out for when you go to the can this morning, then you might want to move on to another blog.
But before we get into pure numbers, I'd also submit that it's important to keep one thought in the back of your mind. For the majority of his career, Smoltz was either the second- or third-best starter on his own team, behind Glavine from 1988-2002 and also Maddux from 1993-2003. So for a ten-season stretch from 1993 to 2002, when Smoltz took the mound in his prime his Braves were often batting against the opponent's #3 starter. I'd have to speculate that might have inflated his win total just a bit as compared to teammates Maddux and Glavine, who regularly faced the opponents' ace hurler and #2 pitcher.
Now, with that said, Smoltz has still amassed a career record of 210-147, along with 154 saves and an ERA of 3.26. He has one Cy Young award to his credit, in 1996 (after teammate Maddux won the previous four in a row, including one while still with the Cubs), as well as the 1992 NLCS MVP. He also made eight MLB All-Star teams. These are his only major MLB accolates, unless you count the 2002 Rolaids Relief Man of the Year or his one Silver Slugger.
Smoltz broke through the magical 3,000 career strikeout barrier this season, which is certainly impressive. Statistically, it might be the most important line on his resume. Of the other 15 members of the 3,000 strikeout club:
- Nine are in the HOF (Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Don Sutton, Gaylord Perry, Walter Johnson, Phil Niekro, Fergie Jenkins, and Bob Gibson)
- Three will certainly be in the HOF once they are eligible (Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez)
- One will probably be in the HOF once he is eligible (Curt Schilling)
- One would have been in the HOF if he would have stayed retired and certain indiscretions had not come to light (Roger Clemens)
- One is the subject of an annual debate as to his HOF-worthiness (Bert Blyleven)
That's the list of Smoltz's peers in the 3,000 Strikeout Club. Impressive, to be sure.
But let's look at the rest of the top-20 in career strikeouts: HOF'ers Jim Bunning and Cy Young, as well as Mickey Lolich and Frank Tanana. And then just below them are #21-25 all-time: Mike Mussina, David Cone, Chuck Finley, future HOF'er Tom Glavine, and HOF'er Warren Spahn.
What's my point here? Smoltz hit a magical plateau with 3,000 strikeouts. And he almost represents a line of demarcation whereby everyone above him is or should be (under normal circumstances) in the Hall. Being close to 3,000 without actually going over? A much more slippery slope. Smoltz appears to have finished his career with 3,011 strikeouts. He should be glad he reached that height; breaking 3,000 may be the number that outweighs all others in five years.
Some would argue that, had he not been an All-Star reliever for a portion of his career, Smoltz might have easily racked up more strikeouts -- as well as more wins. Personally, I'd dispute that. And Smoltz gave us proof today in his press conference by admitting that had he not gone into relief pitching, his career might not have lasted long beyond the 2001 season.
Think back to the beginning of this decade. Smoltz had missed the entire 2000 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. In 2001, he tried to return as a starter, but transitioned to middle relief and then into the closer's role.
It has often been written, including yesterday by Jayson Stark on ESPN.com, that the move to the bullpen was to attempt to relieve stress on his elbow. It was not a matter of choice; injuries forced his hand. Had he not gone to the bullpen, there's a good chance that his resume would be less impressive than more because there's a good chance it would have ended sooner.
By the time he switched to the 'pen, Smoltz had started 11 full seasons in the major leagues and parts of two others. He was 34 years old. Ignoring the five attempted starts at the beginning of the 2001 season, he had a career record of 157-113, 2,098 strikeouts, and a 3.35 ERA in his twelve seasons. If it had ended then, Smoltz would be recognized for his solid career as a starter; certainly not HOF-worthy at that point in time.
What is remarkable about looking over those first 11 full seasons is his consistency. He averaged just over 14 wins and 9.5 losses per season. Take out his best (1996 Cy Young) and worst (1994, 6-10 record) season, and his average is just under 14 wins and 9.8 losses per season. In fact, those best-and-worst seasons were the only years in which he didn't have between 11 and 17 wins (three away from his mean in either direction). Again, everything about Smoltz's career when he moved to the bullpen -- abdicating his role as the #3 starter on a perennial pennant-winner -- was solid but not HOF-worthy.
Among modern pitchers, Smoltz's prime as a starter most closely resembles that of one of my favorite pitchers, David Cone. Cone's career at that point was two years longer, and he had amassed a record of 193-123 with more than 2,600 strikeouts and an ERA around 3.44. The difference is that after 2001, Cone's career was virtually over; he had a failed comeback with the Mets in 2003 that lasted all of five games before retiring for good.
Is Cone HOF-worthy? As much as it pains me to say it, certainly not. Neither are most of the other modern-era pitchers that the (incredible) website baseball-reference.com statistically projected as comparable pitchers to Smoltz through that point in his career:
1. Orel Hershiser
2. Kevin Brown
3. Curt Schilling
4. David Cone
5. Joe Niekro
6. Luis Tiant
7. Jerry Koosman
8. Rick Reuschel
9. Phil Niekro
While Cone's my favorite, Phil Niekro is the only one of those pitchers in the Hall - and he was one of the more controversial entrants of the last 25 years. Schilling will probably get in (aided, no doubt, by his postseason heroics and the infamous bloody sock). But that list is largely nice pitchers with strong careers - not HOF'ers.
So what of Smoltz's post-season heroics? He's known as the postseason career leader with 15 wins. Surely he stood out as stellar during that run of Braves’ postseason failures that included only one World Series title, though? Right?
In 1996, Smoltz did follow up his award-winning regular season with one of the most dominant postseason pitching performances ever – going 4-1 with a superhuman 0.94 ERA in five postseason starts. The Braves lost the World Series to the Yankees in six games; in Smoltz’s only loss, he surrendered one run over eight innings in a Game 5 loss. So we can admit that John Smoltz had, from start to finish, an AMAZING 1996 season.
(We might also argue that this amazing season could have caused the beginning of his arm troubles, given that he pitched over 290 total innings in the regular season and playoffs in 1996, followed by over 270 innings in 1997 and, as a starter, was never as impressive again. Bobby Cox should be grilled over this. But that's not our point here.)
Aside from this '96 postseason performance and a 1992 NLCS MVP award (2-0, 2.66 ERA versus Pittsburgh), Smoltz had only decent postseason success. In 1995, the Braves' only World Series win of the Smoltz era (against the Cleveland Indians), he went 0-0 in the postseason with a 6.60 ERA. In his only World Series start, he lasted less than three innings in a game 3 loss.
Elsewhere in his posteason career, there are as many lows (laying eggs in the 1997 and 1998 NLCS, a game 4 loss in a 1999 Yankees World Series sweep) as highs (dominant 1991 World Series performance in two starts with two no-decisions to show for it, two clutch saves in the 2001 NLDS).
The postseason conclusion? Smoltz may hold the record for most career postseason wins, but it's largely due to a combination of longevity and service to one team, the Braves' consistent appearances, and the fact that the Yankees didn't have a similar career-long employee as a starter during the same time period.
Of course, Smoltz's career didn't end in 2001. He did go to the bullpen and rack up 154 saves in three and a half seasons. He is the therefore the only pitcher with 200 career wins and 150 career saves…but only because Dennis Eckersley finished with only 197 wins. And, of course, 390 saves - more than 2 1/2 times as many as Smoltz.
Smoltz, as a reliever, was simply nowhere near as dominant as Eckersley was. Smoltz tallied 154 saves and a 2.65 ERA in less than four seasons. His 2003 was an amazing season as a closer; on the heels of an NL-record 55 saves in 2002, Smoltz turned in another 45 in 2003 but, more impressively, finished with a 1.12 ERA and only eight earned runs in 62 appearances. And yet, Smoltz wasn't even the best closer in the NL in 2003. That honor went to Eric Gagne – who took home the 2003 NL Cy Young Award by tying Smoltz's NL saves record of a year earlier.
But Smoltz's brief run of bullpen dominance can't compare to the eleven seasons when Eck redefined the position from 1987 to 1997. His best year was, statistically, the best ever by a closer: 48 saves and a 0.61 ERA for the pennant-winning 1990 Oakland A's. And, by the way, Eckersley racked up 151 wins in his eleven career seasons as a starter…not too far off of Smoltz's pre-bullpen totals.
Smoltz does get major credit for transitioning back to a starter's role in 2005, and tacked on another 44 wins to his career totals. Again, though, his retransformation was injury-driven. He'd had yet another surgery and (according, again, to Stark) decided that "pitching every fifth day would be better for his arm."
So now here Smoltz stands at his potential retirement, a very unique case. No one has ever transitioned from starter to 154-save-reliever, and then back to 44-win starter before. But have we cast enough doubt yet on whether the career itself was worthy of induction to the Hall? If not, then consider also these points:
With his 154 career saves, Smoltz is only 18th among active pitchers. Yeah, mainstays like Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera, and Billy Wagner have more. But so do Eddie Guardado, Keith Foulke, Tom Gordon, and Francisco Cordero. Yes, Smoltz only racked up saves in four years. But is Billy Koch a HOF'er as a reliever (163 saves in under five seasons)? Or is Brad Lidge, at this point in his career (138 in five)? Sure, Smoltz is different than any of these guys (except Gordon, and believe me, I'm not comparing Smoltz to Flash) in that he was an All-Star closer in his second career. But his credentials as a closer alone don't have the longevity of a Wagner, Rivera, or Hoffman…or an Eckersley. Or, said differently, four seasons of closing games doesn't make someone an elite closer.
Smoltz only finished in the top-3 in NL Cy Young voting twice - his win in 1996 and his impressive 2002 season. In his 2003 season - that dominant Gibson-esque ERA year - he didn't even receive a single vote. He also only has one top-10 MVP finish (also 2002). But shouldn't a Hall of Famer be among the top three pitchers in his league more than twice in his career?
In 1998, Smoltz did finish tied for 4th in Cy Young voting, alongside Maddux. Who won that year? Glavine. Ignoring Maddux's Cy Young win as a Cub in 1992, Braves pitchers won 6 of 8 NL Cy Young awards from 1991 to 1998. Smoltz only won one of them. Again, isn't it hard to argue that he's one of the best of all-time when he was clearly the third best pitcher on his own team? And if not, shouldn't the rest of his stats jump off the page at you?
Given the strength of his Braves teams, shouldn't winning percentage matter? Despite being on the best team in the NL for most of his career, Smoltz didn't even win 60% of his games. His career winning percentage of 58.8% places him 21st among active pitchers, below Kenny Rogers, Chris Carpenter, Josh Beckett, Mark Mulder, Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and Tim Hudson. The six pitchers just underneath Smoltz? Mariano Rivera (which surprised me), El Duque, Jason Schmidt, John Lackey, Mark Buehrle and Wade Miller. Yes, above him are also names like Peavy and Schilling but it's not exactly a stellar percentage - especially for a perennial pennant winner. And, back to the Braves again, note that Glavine is at 60.3% and Maddux 61.6%.
For his career, that winning percentage is only good enough for 153rd on the all-time list (minimum 1,000 innings pitched and 100 decisions), tied with Bret Saberhagen and Tom Morgan. Yes, there are about a dozen modern-era HOF pitchers with winning percentages of less than 60%, but they're generally names like Spahn and Drysdale and Gibson (with a couple of Gaylord Perry-types dropped in as well). Bottom line: Smoltz's career winning percentage doesn't jump off the page as indication of a stellar front-line starting pitcher.
As far as I can see, if this is the end of the line for John Smoltz, then the game is losing one of its best and fiercest competitors. But I'm not sure whether the game is watching one of the best players ever ride off into the sunset. Maybe in five years we'll actually see the voters look at the facts and not just the articles from tomorrow's papers that declare it a foregone conclusion.
Monday, February 11, 2008
Yes, it would be easy to say that Clemson choked. Unfortunately, it just wouldn't be correct. Clemson lost this game because the ACC officiating crew of Ted Valentine, Bernard Clinton, and Tony Greene handed the game to the Tarheels on a silver platter.
Lest you think that this argument is merely "sour grapes," you won't hear me complain about Clemson's 90-88 overtime home loss to UNC back in January - a game where both teams played valiantly and the Tarheels simply made one more great play than the Tigers did. And while I can admit to a Tigers' choke, it happened down in Miami about three weeks ago, not last night in Chapel Hill.
Of course, many fans in all sorts of college and professional sports often feel as though the refs have a vendetta against their favorite team. This argument is very acute in ACC basketball, where UNC and Duke seem to always have the refs' favor on their respective home courts. For me, part of the joy in watching the NCAA tournament every year is in watching the look of disbelief on the faces of Tarheel and Blue Devil players as they get whistled for legitimate fouls that had gone uncalled all season long in conference play. In fact, I wish I had the time and resources to take a long-term review of foul-call statistics in conference play and tournament play for these two teams to see if the disparity is indeed real or only perceived.
Last night, though, there was no perception. Only reality.
Clemson was whistled for 31 fouls last night; Chapel Hill, only 14. As a result, the Tarheels went to the free throw line 36 times, compared to only 7 for the Tigers. Clemson continued its horrendous inability to convert from the line, making only one of seven shots (compared to 31-36 for UNC). Given the team's inability to convert, some fans have suggested that Clemson may have been better off with the imbalance in foul calls, as it kept the Tigers off the line and stopped them from missing free throws and handing the ball back to the Tarheels.
But this argument misses the main point: because of the fouls called against Clemson, three Tiger starters were on the bench for significant minutes while UNC made their late-regulation comeback. The differential in foul calls allowed Tyler Hansbrough and the rest of the Tarheels' starters to claw back against the Tigers' bench. And this, thanks to an inept officiating crew, is what cost the Tigers the game.
It would be easy for someone who hasn't watched this particular Clemson team to recall other bruising squads of the last fifteen years who sometimes played as much of a contact sport on the basketball court as they did basketball itself. But Oliver Purnell has built a fundamentally sound, NCAA tournament-bound team. A poster named "MEZRAW" on Tigernet.com, Clemson's largest fan site, best illustrated the point with some nifty research.
This year, in 23 games, Clemson has been whistled for more fouls that their opponent 11 times, less fouls 11 times, and the same amount of fouls once. That certainly seems well-dispersed.
But in the games Clemson was called for more fouls, the discrepancy in free throws attempted was as follows:
ECU +5 additional free throws,
Ole Miss +3,
UNC +3 (Clemson home game in January),
UVA +9, and
UNC +29 (last night).
Certainly seems like a statistically significant deviation from the norm, no?
But wait - it gets better. UNC "star" Tyler Hansbrough finished the night with 39 points, 14 rebounds, and, of course, only three fouls. He must've played quite the delicate game in the paint to only get three calls against him in 47 minutes of play - and only two in regulation.
Clemson center Trevor Booker, an emerging star in his own right, played opposite Hansbrough most of the night. I say "most" because Booker got into foul trouble defending the great Hansbrough and only played 27 minutes. Booker spent large portions of the second half on the bench and fouled out with 2:06 left in overtime, effectively ending Clemson's chances at holding on.
The fact is that the calls were incredibly one-sided last night in favor of the Tarheels. Trevor Booker picked up his fourth foul with about 12 minutes left; guard K.C. Rivers picked up his fourth with about six minutes left. Demontez Stitt and James Mays were also in foul trouble throughout the second half. Booker and Stitt fouled out; Mays, Rivers, and Sam Perry each finished with four fouls.
So five Tigers committed four or more fouls, and two fouled out of the game. Meanwhile, no Tarheel fouled out. In a double-overtime battle, no Tarheel picked up more than three personal fouls. And it's no coincidence that the Tarheels' run at the end of regulation largely started with Booker and Rivers on the bench in foul trouble, and Clemson reserves attempting to guard Hansbrough and Danny Green. Yes, the Tigers did commit a couple of costly turnovers at the end of regulation - but they did so with their starters on the bench.
I could go on to cite specific examples, like the nonexistent touch foul on Terrence Oglesby that put UNC on the line to tie the game at 90 in the second overtime, or the undercut on Hansbrough after a James Mays dunk that went uncalled, or the blatant foul on Mays with one second left in the first overtime. And we haven't even addressed the fact that the refs literally gave UNC a timeout with jut over a minute left in the game, despite the fact that one had not been called and the Tigers had already advanced the ball to half-court.
But doing so will not right the injustice that happened last night. All it does is make my blood pressure rise even more.
Clemson didn't choke. Clemson was robbed.
Friday, February 8, 2008
None of us have written in a long time. A very, very long time. But now that I'm involved in a fantasy baseball league here on the Interwebs, it's time to kick the tires and get this thing going again.
I'm pretty sure this fantasy league is going to be the Best Fantasy Baseball League Ever. And that made me think of something I wrote on the old website back on January 19, 2006. So I'm going to recycle it here and now. Some of the references are dated (like the Texas/USC Rose Bowl) but still ring true in light of the Patriots dynasty crashing and burning on Sunday night.
Original posts will be coming shortly…
I haven't even finished with the first sentence yet, but I already know that this column will be my best column ever.
It has to be. I mean, if it isn't, then why am I even bothering to write it? And why would you bother to read it?
It's kind of like this year's Rose Bowl, which was dubbed the Best National Championship Game Ever before a down had even been played. I don't know why that surprises me; ESPN.com had apparently already determined the game to be a classic and went so far as to anoint Southern Cal as the eventual victors. They even followed up their implied prediction with an online poll to determine whether this year's Trojan team was the best college football team of the last fifty years. I'm sure Vince Young and Texas gained no small amount of motivation from that contest!
Of course, ESPN.com escaped its gaffe unscathed because the only sports/media outlet powerful enough to comment negatively on the poll would be ESPN itself, which obviously didn't. And we might have been better off if the Trojans had indeed won; if they did, maybe we wouldn't have been forced to endure a week of talking heads proclaiming Vince Young to be the Best Quarterback Ever.
Meanwhile, I wonder if Tommie Frazier was sitting somewhere in Nebraska kicking the leg of his coffee table and remembering how dominant he and his team were in the mid-90's. Lest anyone forget, those Cornhuskers (1993 through 1995) won two national championships and lost a third by a field goal.
The 1995 team may have been the most dominant and well-rounded football team ever. On offense, the Huskers scored 638 points during the season for an average of 53 points per game. But Nebraska only gave up 14.5 points per game on defense, meaning that they won each game by an average of almost 40 points. Only two teams managed to come within 14 points. And in
the National Championship game against a highly-touted, Danny Wuerrfel-led Florida squad, Nebraska won by an embarrassing score of 62-24. Frazier ran for 199 yards and two touchdowns, and won his second consecutive Most Valuable Player Award in the National Championship Game.
With all respect to Lawrence Phillips, who frightens the bejeesus out of me, Frazier was the key cog in that Nebraska offense. He was a prototypical old-school Nebraska option threat, and never rang up huge passing numbers, but he was mighty efficient. In his senior year, he threw for almost 1,400 yards and 17 touchdowns with only four interceptions to go along with all those yards he picked up on the ground. Frazier finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting that year, losing out to Ohio State running back Eddie George; Wuerrfel came in third but won the award the following year.
(Yes, I looked up those statistics on the Internet. God bless Google. I also found out that Frazier coached running backs at Baylor for four years after graduation, then worked in Nebraska's athletic department, and is now the head coach at NAIA school Doane College in Crete, Nebraska. And it's actually a little-known fact that Frazier was committed to Clemson before
making a last-minute decision to go to Nebraska instead, and that many Clemson fans wonder what the last ten years would have been like if we had landed Touchdown Tommie.)
Why did I just bore you with two paragraphs of statistics about a guy that dominated college football exactly ten years ago? It's not because I'm a closet Cornhusker fan, or even a Tommie Frazier fan. It's also not because I dislike Vince Young or the attention he received after an absolutely phenomenal season. It's because I'm tired of every sporting event or performance being judged as either: a) the best ever or b) unworthy of my attention.
Wasn't Vince Young the same quarterback last Thursday morning as he was on Wednesday night? Sure, he added a national championship trophy and a performance for the ages, but he still throws the football like Warren would in "Something About Mary." Maybe he'll make a great (or even, heaven forbid, a "good") NFL quarterback, but nothing he did against Southern Cal changed my opinion of him. He did exactly the same thing he had been doing all season, just on a bigger scale.
Meanwhile, the Reggie Bush bandwagon (or, as I like to call it, The Bushwagon) derailed and thousands of talk radio hosts and blog pundits were sent hurtling to their doom, as "experts" decried the fact that Bush didn't break a hundred yards rushing in the Big Game. Some went so far to suggest that Young, and not Bush, should now project to be the first overall pick in the NFL draft. Leave it to the Houston Texans, though, to inject a dose of sanity by reminding us all that Bush notched over 200 total yards in the game and was, by far, the most electrifying player in the nation this year, even if his team wasn't the Best Team Ever.
Of course, sometimes it is even necessary to lie to be the Best Team Ever. The entire build-up to this year's Rose Bowl was based on USC's quest to win an unprecedented third-straight national title. And they would apparently try to accomplish this feat in the Rose Bowl, the BCS Championship Game, on ABC.
But doesn't anyone but me remember that the Trojans didn't actually win the BCS Championship after the 2003 season? Doesn't anyone remember that the Trojans finished first in both polls but that LSU finished first in the BCS rankings and therefore "earned" the right to play Oklahoma in the BCS Championship Game? I'll give the Trojans all the credit in the world for their three-year stretch of dominance but for ABC to promote the game as potentially delivering a third straight national championship while the sponsoring Bowl organization only recognizes one of the two previous wins seems a little bit disingenuous to me.
Of course, I'm also an idiot for even mentioning it. Facts don't matter when you're trying to promote the Best Game Ever!
When did we become so obsessed with trying to over-quantify events? It applies beyond sports, too. Movies, music, and even current events must all be placed immediately in historical context without giving any considering to events of the past. Anything older than two or three years ago seems to quickly become ancient history. I'm sure VH1 contributed to this trend with their obscene "I Love the 90's" TV show. Hell, it's easy to be misty-eyed about a decade that closed six whole years ago! (Or, in the words of Ben Folds, "They get nostalgic for the last ten years before the last ten years have passed.")
The similar over-analysis of music is just as disturbing. I like to call it the "Coldplay Phenomenon." See, Coldplay released their first album Parachutes in the summer of 2000 after some moderate indie success overseas. "Yellow" became a radio anthem, the album sold pretty well, and Coldplay became a Moderately Cool Band.
In the summer of 2002, the band released the highly anticipated A Rush of Blood to the Head. There were several radio hits, "Clocks" became one of the most ubiquitous songs ever, tours sold out, singers married movie stars, and a really good band actually delivered a sophomore album worth talking about. So, naturally, as the band was busy recording X&Y for a summer, 2005
release, the common Coldplay conversation centered around whether Coldplay was as good of a band as U2, who is generally considered the best band of the last 25 years.
Not over whether Coldplay could produce an album better than Rush of Blood. Not over how marriage and fatherhood and celebrity would affect the band's writings. Not even over the band had grown and reacted to each other. Nope; all anyone wanted to know was "Coldplay" or "U2."
I wasn't surprised when Coldplay begin to feel the backlash - from some members of the media, from some of their fans, even from some people barely acquainted with their music. On the heels of their 11th studio album, U2 seemed to win the popular vote in a landslide. And the sad truth is that it wasn't even a fair comparison.
Let's actually look at facts and put things in perspective, which I know is about as fun as a sitz bath, but which I actually find useful in trying to find historical context. As Coldplay released X&Y, it had been five years, three studio albums, and one live concert album/DVD since their debut. The band had enjoyed critical and commercial success and stood as one of the biggest
rock bands in the world.
Sure, Coldplay couldn't compare to the entire U2 catalog at that point in time. Very few bands in history could. But how about comparing Coldplay to U2 at similar points in their careers? In October, 1983, U2 released the live EP Under a Blood Red Sky, with an incendiary version of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" that received seemingly constant airplay on MTV. "This is Red Rocks…This is The Edge!" They had been together four years, and released three studio recordings. Basically, they were at a similar point in their careers as Coldplay was this past summer.
But in 1983, U2 was still largely a cult band that was more successful in the U.K. than here in America. Their first two albums, Boy and October, yielded only the moderately successful "I Will Follow." Their third album, War, honed their political edge and gave us such anthems as "New Year's Day," "Two Hearts Beat as One," and of course "Sunday Bloody Sunday." If we draw the line right there, I can't believe that there's many of us that would, at that stage in their
careers, choose U2 over Coldplay.
Of course, in the next five years, U2 grew to become the biggest band in the world. And who knows where Coldplay will be when this decade closes - whether they will reach such similar lofty status or not. But to compare the two bands, don't you have to at least afford some perspective? Is it fair to say that U2 is the better band because their eleven albums squash the three released by Chris Martin and the boys?
Doesn't matter; we need to rank these two bands among the Best Bands Ever. And so it is in our Fast Food World. This week, Bruce Sutter got elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and was anointed the Best Reliever Ever. Apparently the voters thought so, since they brought in Sutter and his moustache while leaving Goose Gossage and Lee Smith clawing at the doors.
And the NFL announced its Hall of Fame finalists, sparking renewed discussion as to whether Troy Aikman was the Best Quarterback Ever. Even though the answer is obviously Joe Montana, with Tom Brady a close second.
Meanwhile, I just plod along in my personal mediocrity, which is apparently the only thing you can be if you aren't absolutely, positively The Best. What can I say - I like what I like, and I dislike what I dislike. And I, for one, recognize that arguments over labels like "Best" are only fun if you actually take the time to sit down and evaluate them on their merits.
Monday, July 2, 2007
(Originally posted on the old website, 6/18/04)
Updated, July 3: Thanks to Burke Brockbank for passing along this must-see Stephen A. video tribute: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EvJGghOuFlQ
Please stop yelling at me.
Seriously. I get what you're after. I went to high school with a guy like you. He knew his sports, but rather than try to ever discuss any topic with intelligence, he preferred the brow-beating method: yell your argument at the top of your lungs and bully your opponent into a resigned submission.
During those high school days, I caught a show on U2's Achtung Baby tour. One of the lines plastered on the canvas backdrop was "Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy." I always felt that way when I was around that guy in high school -- like it wasn't a crime to just walk away because the energy it took to have a conversation with him surely did not outweigh the benefits. And now, Stephen, I feel that way with you.
I'm sure you serve some target demographic for ESPN. There haven't been a lot of guys who tried to exploit the "knowledgeable yet annoying basketball blowhard" role. What I'm still not sure about is where you came from. Don't get me wrong -- I know you're a Philly beat writer. I just can't figure out how you parlayed that into more undeserved ESPN air time than anyone since Carrot Top started appearing in SportsCenter commercials.
I remember that only a couple months ago I had seen you just once or twice, and then all of a sudden you were conducting an ‘exclusive’ interview for ESPN with Ty Law of the New England Patriots when he announced that he would never return to play for Bill Belichick. I don’t know how you got that assignment, but you haven't left since. It had to be the most cash thrust into
the spotlight since Izzy Cole got to replace Bobby Beers in Steel Dragon.
I used to get amused when I'd watch Sean Salisbury and John Clayton debate football this past fall. It was obvious that ESPN was playing up the "bully vs. geek" angle. But it was fun witnessing the two of them go at it. Salisbury may have tried to play the bully part, but sometimes Clayton reared back and fired right back at him. And there were genuine moments where the truth showed through - subtle moments where you could tell these guys were
enjoying the role playing but actually appreciated each other's opinions and perspectives.
I don't get that same sense with you. And you have found success in pushing someone like Tim Legler into a corner, but Greg Anthony probably won’t be such a pushover. In fact, you may be lucky that the NBA Finals are almost over because each time you and Anthony go at it, he looks like he's one step closer to recalling his thug-ball days with the Knicks and coming right after
Look, Stephen, there's no doubt that you know your basketball. I'm aware of this because you spend all of your on-air time doing nothing but reminding me of this one fact. Also, I especially love that sarcastic way you drone on a name when you really want to imply that someone is weak. Hell, Luke Walton racked up a half dozen Game 4 fouls in less time than it takes you to get out the name of his replacement, "Slava Medvedenko."
Don't try and go all Howard Stern on me, Stephen, and play the "any press is good press" angle. I'll never forget that scene in Private Parts when they're talking about how long the average Stern fan used to listen, and how much longer the Stern-haters would tune in. Their answer for why was always "to see what he'll say next." Well, Stephen, you're different. We don't keep
watching to see what you say next; we keep watching because we're addicted to ESPN like it's the only gas station in town that carries Red Bull. We don't watch because of you; we watch in spite of you. And that's a shame, because it's very apparent that you know your basketball and could be an asset as an announcer if you weren’t shouting me down all the time.
Of course, you probably didn't hear a single word I just said. You were busy yelling too loud.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
We made it to . Spent the morning at the pool since we couldn't check in until 3. Saw a lot of European butt crack (male and female). People here wear very short shorts (male and female) and have a decent amount of body hair (male and female).
No doubt, the Tarheels are one of the most storied college basketball programs in the country, and have produced more than their fair share of NBA talent. Of course, success breeds contempt, leading to a strong divide between the Tarheels fans in town and…well…everybody else. Don't forget that it's not just Duke that is also up the road a piece. Within a three-hour radius of Charlotte sit other ACC foes like NC State, Virginia Tech, and Clemson, as well as looming Cinderellas like Appalachian State, Davidson, and Winthrop. Having so many schools in such close proximity, with large numbers of fans centered here in the Queen City, leaves plenty of opportunity for Tarheel-hating. The success of the Heels only makes it worse; the arrogant behavior of some of their fans might be the factor that pushes it over the edge.
It's also no secret that the Bobcats have close ties with the Chapel Hill program - maybe even closer than the casual fan might recognize. Don't think that the Bobcats Tarheel connection starts with Michael Jordan and ends with Raymond Felton and Sean May, or even backup point guard Jeff McInnis (who has one of the five highest salaries on a salary-conscious team despite playing less than 19 minutes per game). Former Tarheel star Phil Ford is an assistant coach. And Jordan's former Tarheel teammate Buzz Peterson is the Director of Player Personnel.
It's these connections that make fans wary. And yes, despite what Bill Simmons might think, the Bobcats do indeed have fans. I myself am a season ticket holder, and have been since their inaugural season. Might Brandan Wright be the best talent on the board if he's still available when the #8 pick rolls around? Possibly. But if he's taken by the Bobcats, it will feel to many like just another incident of Tarheel nepotism.
Nothing illustrates prevailing fan sentiment more clearly than the case of May. He was a focal point on the 2005 Tarheel national championship team, winning the Final Four MVP award and finishing fourth in the balloting for the Wooden Award. A fine college player, no doubt; plenty of fans, though, were unsure of his NBA-readiness. And May has become the litmus test for Bobcats fandom. If you like Sean May, you're a Bobcats apologist that supports their dastardly unwritten Tarheel policy. If you don't like Sean May, you're criticizing a potentially dominant player just because of his alma mater.
Back in the 2005 NBA Draft, the Bobcats used the 13th overall pick in the first round to select May, after taking his Tarheel teammate Felton eight picks earlier. Tarheel fans in Charlotte were delighted. Most everyone else in town raised their eyebrows. High school sensation Gerald Green was still on the draft board at #13. So were college-seasoned forwards Joey Graham and Danny Granger, who many fans preferred to May. And so even though the Bobcats front office might have been blind to the Tarheel connection, and even though they may have truly thought that May was the best option on the board, a section of the fan base cried foul.
Maybe the Bobcats did take the best player available at #13 in the 2005 draft. But to those who squawked, the team didn't do themselves any favors when they immediately began building the 2005 marketing campaign around the two Tarheels, or when they talked about the marketability of the duo playing together in the NBA. For a team desperate for ticket sales upon moving into a new arena, and entering just their second season in the league, the selection of May at #13 and the subsequent public relations blitz seemed preordained, especially for those with an axe to grind against hated UNC. In exploiting the college successes of their two first-round choices, the front office seemed to forget that a large portion of their fan base hates the Heels almost as much as they support their own school.
When healthy, May has shown that he is capable of being a solid NBA player. This past season, May averaged 11.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game - in less than 24 minutes per contest. And there was a nine-game stretch in the winter where one could make a solid argument that May was the best player the Bobcats put on the floor - including a monster 32 point game against Orlando on December 14 that followed up on a 15 point, 13 rebound effort in a close loss to the Cavaliers. His best game of the season was in a loss to the Hawks on November 29, where May gave the Bobcats a fighting chance with 21 points, 17 rebounds, and 5 assists in 38 minutes on a night where the starting frontcourt (Okafor, Wallace, and Morrison) contributed only 12 points and 2 rebounds combined.
Overall, during that nine-game stretch from November 28 to December 14, May averaged 29 minutes and put up more than 18 points and 8 rebounds a game. But May only played in 35 games last season due to his various injuries. He's only played in 58 of the Bobcats 164 regular-season games since he was drafted. And some question whether he'll ever be healthy enough to play on a regular basis.
Now, the Bobcats front office had no idea that May would require several knee surgeries during his first two seasons in the League. The Tarheel haters have forgotten that May was named MVP of the Rocky Mountain Summer League just before his rookie season. And Sean May might put his injuries behind him and still be a productive NBA forward.
The Bobcats didn't do themselves any favors with their fans this week, though, by reportedly turning down a trade offer from the New Jersey Nets of the 17th pick in this year's draft in exchange for May. Surely, Michael Jordan and company were merely paying allegiance to their fellow Tarheel by keeping him around, right? Would any rational front office turn down a first round pick in a supposedly deep draft in exchange for a gimpy forward with bad knees - especially when the 17th pick would give the Bobcats three choices in the first 22 selections and even more flexibility in various trade scenarios? That's what the anti-Heels contingent would have you believe. And, of course, that's something that it appears we'll never know.
Is it all a coincidence? Have Bob Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Bernie Bickerstaff surrounded themselves with the best people for the job - both on and off the court - and it just so happens that many of these people share the Tarheel connection? Or is an extension of the much-rumored Tarheel nepotism that is believed to exist in the Carolinas, where UNC grads always make sure to take care of their own?
Either way, if Wright is on the board at number 8, it seems as though half of the fan base will be frustrated with the decision that is made - regardless of what that decision actually is. And so the mediocre Bobcats continue to stir more discussions about their personnel decisions than they do discussions about their performance on the court. In the end, for a team looking for publicity, maybe that’s all that matters.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
I'm sure we'll get the festivities started soon, and I hope you all check back in early and often. Our esteemed colleague Burke Brockbank is on vacation in Spain, and I'm expecting him to return with stories that rival his legendary tales of a 3-day career in selling medical supplies...