Sports Writing

Sports writing published in The Maine Campus, the University of Maine’s student newspaper.

Dolphins’ Marshall latest athlete to be undeservingly lamed in media

Posted on April 24, 2011, at 10:14 p.m.

The murders of Darrent Williams and Sean Taylor in 2007 still rattle the foundation of the National Football League — constant reminders of the violence that can stem from the riches of professional sports.

Over the weekend, another one of those perspective-framing incidents was narrowly avoided when Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall was stabbed in the stomach by his wife.

The articles sprang up on virtually every sports site, but perhaps more interesting was the commentary by readers and their almost unanimous conviction that this was just another nail in his coffin, despite the fact that he was the victim.

I was baffled by the personal resentment of so many people who have never met Marshall, only judging him on previous behavioral transgressions during his brief NFL career. Labeled as a menace to society who was more deserving of jail time than an NFL career, people completely ignored the idea that we could be talking about another tragic murder of a young NFL superstar rather than a domestic dispute.

Marshall’s survival is pure chance. The knife that was driven into his stomach didn’t puncture any of his vitals — but had his wife struck a few inches in either direction he could have bled out on the floor of his own home — at 27 years old with a $50 million contract.

Public attempts to figure out how these events occur probably trigger the volatile responses chastising Marshall’s lifestyle, along with articles suggesting that the Dolphins are better off just cutting ties instead of dealing with this “headache.”

He and his wife are recently married and money is the least of their worries. So how can it reach the point where he has to fend off a knife-wielding wife with his bare hands?

A Dolphin teammate texted a Miami reporter, “And this is supposed to surprise me how?” It’s tough to doubt that both sides equally contributed to the dispute; however, Marshall’s wife had no bruises in her mug shot a few hours after the altercation, and there was no mention of Marshall using any weapons against his wife — no indications have surfaced yet that this was an act of self defense.

Marshall’s previous history of domestic abuse makes it easy to categorize this event in with past incidents. But I encourage people to resist easing into that frame of mind. We don’t know the guy or his wife, and we don’t know the contributing factors that ultimately placed him in a hospital and her in jail. All we know is his past behavior and what was reported after the incident.

But in truth, only two people were present at the stabbing.

I’m not defending Marshall because of any bias. I’m just not part of the overwhelming majority that pretends this type of behavior is exclusive to rich young athletes — they’re just the ones we hear about in the media. If you have the audacity to judge, at least approach what happened between Marshall and his wife as an isolated incident instead of pouncing on the opportunity to make blanket statements about a lifestyle you cannot relate to.

But what if the knife did hit a vital organ and Marshall had died? How many of the same people criticizing him as an immature and spoiled athlete would be quick to post messages like, “Such a tragedy, RIP Brandon”?

When Taylor was shot and killed in 2007, it was the other way around. The people who cried out against Taylor’s lifestyle, and blamed him for his own death, were drowned out by the sympathizers.

In reality, Taylor’s lifestyle did welcome dangerous behavior eventually leading to his shooting, but if you mentioned that in the aftermath you were labeled insensitive.

If you subscribe to the notion that Marshall “had it coming,” ask yourself this: Does a guy really need to die in order for us to apply the appropriate perspective?

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Top 10 stoner athletes of all time

Posted on April 20, 2011, at 10:31 p.m.

Not sure about you, but in the midst of the hellish turmoil of the last month of school, the holidays really helped me alleviate some of that stress. I hope you all enjoyed yours as well.

Here’s a few athletes — current and former — who’ve also been known to celebrate: The sports world’s top 10 stoners.

10. Randy Moss

The legendary wideout has admitted to smoking marijuana throughout high school and in college at Florida State and Marshall. College athletes aren’t subject to the drug testing professional athletes are, so coupling Moss’ devious childhood ways and the freedom of the greatest years of his life, we can assume he partook. In 2005 he admitted to smoking pot in the offseason “once in a blueberry moon,” — I mean, “once in a blue moon.”

9. Santonio Holmes

Perhaps no other athlete in any professional sport desperately tries to manipulate the possibilities of getting high around bi-weekly drug tests than Holmes, another wideout on this list. A March 31, 2010 Twitter post reads, “Time to wake n bake.”

A couple of things to note here: It was during the driest part of an NFL offseason and it was tweeted at 9:06 a.m. The true sign of a stoner is somebody who gets after it while McDonald’s is still serving breakfast. With one career blemish — a 2008 possession charge — Holmes’ name needs a spot on this list.

8. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

The NBA’s all-time scoring leader is also a notorious smoker. First, consider the era in which he played. Dude came into the league in ’69 and spent his college days smack dab in the middle of the mother-of-all-decades for marijuana use.

In 1998 he was stopped by customs at a Toronto airport for a “miniscule amount” of marijuana. Tough move, Kareem — no reason to try and sneak a bowl pack across customs. Bite the bullet and hit up vodka and tonics on the beverage cart until you land.

Other career accolades: a charge for driving under the influence of marijuana (another real tough break) in 2000 and a medical marijuana prescription for migraine headaches. Big ups, Lew.

7. Michael Vick

Vick first made waves with airport security à la Abdul-Jabbar in one of those fake water bottles that have a weed compartment in the bottom of it. It smelled like weed, but nothing was there — which means it was probably Skunk or Sour D to have that lingering effect.

Internet pictures surfaced of Vick with a blunt in the back of a limo, and after being suspended by the NFL for dog fighting charges in 2007, he tested positive. Tough to blame him really — if you’re going down already, might as well.

6. Josh Howard

While a member of the Mavericks, Howard admitted on Michael Irvin’s radio show he smoked marijuana during the offseason like the majority of the NBA and NFL, and received immediate heat. The outcry was incredible for such a harmless admission. Howard was made to apologize, but it was perfect because he didn’t apologize for smoking. He understood it might not be a good thing for teenagers to hear on TV but made no effort to hide his pride. For that, we all should appreciate this minor, yet monumental admission.

5. Michael Phelps

If I just made a mockery of the longest-standing and most historic athletic competition the world has ever known, you know what I’d be doing? Exactly what this seven-time 2008 Olympic swimming gold medalist was doing in 2009 at a party. Too bad the picture caused controversy, but seven gold medals makes it easy to survive the attack. The insincere apology was incredibly hollow, but he had endorsements on the line. At least Subway realized who the majority of their customers were.

4. Tim Lincecum

“The Freak” must have been stoked to get drafted by the Giants and live in San Francisco. His first citation came in 2009 when a cop found a slice in his Mercedes. That’s tough, because you know he just picked it up and probably was just cracking into that bag on the way home when he got busted. In an interview after winning the World Series, he was asked what the scene was like in San Francisco.

“Hopefully a lot of beer flowing, lot of smoke in the air,” he said to Karl Ravech with a grin on his face. And this offseason, a video surfaced of a man looking eerily similar to Lincecum pretending to be a Spanish cabbie, blunt in hand and a two-foot bong by his leg.

I’m going out on a limb and saying Lincecum nostalgically wanders Haight-Ashbury during his off-days, wishing he could pitch with Willie Mays in center and Willie McCovey at first.

3. Doc Ellis

If you don’t know the legend of Doc Ellis, do yourself a favor and type “Doc Ellis no hitter” into YouTube and watch the first video. Not only is it one of the finest videos online, it depicts the tale of how he threw a no-hitter in 1970 while tripping on acid. Now, this isn’t marijuana related per se; however, everybody knows you don’t drop acid unless you have a fat bag on hand. That’s Tripping 101. Doc knew that — what a pioneer.

2. Bill Walton

Coincidentally selected by the Trail Blazers in 1974, Walton is a renowned stoner. Dude makes his status as a Dead Head no secret and he actually used to kick it with Jerry Garcia. Tough to beat that, but…

1. Ricky Williams

The quintessential marijuana sports icon. The Bob Marley-esque dreads, Marley’s disposition, a child named Marley — the guy has everything you look for. Prior to the 2004 NFL season, Williams made every stoner in the world proud by sticking it to The Man, peace-ing out and living in the Australian outback with nothing but dingos and doobies.

But what sets Ricky apart from the rest is that he takes it a step further than all other athletes. It truly was his way of life and he never compromised that for anything. Williams has been able to endure several positive drug tests and still remains one of the most respected players in the NFL, and he got there by doing everything the way he thought was right. There’s something to be said for that.

He doesn’t smoke now as he is a current player, but he’s active in the Holistic Healing game, and as soon as his career ends and the Hall of Fame clock starts ticking, Ricky will be torching some Sticky Icky. He’s the consummate stoner and a cultural icon who transcends the world of sports and smokes.

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Upside down AL Central leads early MLB headlines

Posted on April 17, 2011, at 9:29 p.m.

With the 2011 MLB season still in its infancy, two teams sit atop the American League Central at 10-4, and they aren’t the usual suspects.

Perennial basement tenants Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians are enjoying an early season surge, while the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers dwell in the cellar of the division. But where will it land them after 162 games?

Kansas City’s story is the most surprising. The Royals are expected to rise in the coming years with a strong core of young pitchers in the minors. But they apparently didn’t get the memo, as they exploded out of spring training. You wouldn’t find anybody on this roster you’d mistake for an MVP or batting champion. The closest you will find is right fielder Jeff Francoeur, who is hitting .327 with two home runs and 11 runs batted in.

Their starters aren’t consistently turning in great performances either. The Royals, though, have shown character early on, winning several close games and posting a winning record, 4-3, through seven divisional matchups. The Central has always been a division susceptible to early risers like KC because no team has ever had a stronghold on the division.

The Royals are a great underdog story right now, but they can’t be expected to continue playing at this level without a clear and present danger at the plate, a starting rotation that is average at best and lacking a No. 1 starter. They have fared well early on, and have proven to themselves that winning in this division is a possibility. But by mid-summer will the enthusiasm be tempered? Will the Royals have quietly and compliantly slipped back into the fourth or fifth spot in the divisional standings?

Cleveland’s story is due in large part to the performance of two of their starting pitchers. Former Red Sox project Justin Masterson has been the AL’s best pitcher in this early season, going 3-0 with a 1.33 ERA, while averaging just under seven innings per start. At the very end of the rotation sits Josh Tomlin, who boasts his own 3-0 record and a 2.75 ERA. Six combined wins out of those two guys has this team feeling good about co-leading this division. But will they subside with Kansas City?

I don’t think so, not as early at least. Whether or not they’re a playoff team is debatable, but they are, without a doubt, a team that can make noise late into September and could challenge for the division crown.

Travis Hafner and Asdrubal Cabrera have done the heavy lifting for the Tribe on offense this year. If they expect to continue building on their win count, they need to squeeze production from other areas of that lineup. Matt LaPorta and Shin-Soo Choo are veteran hitters, and their bats can come around soon. The reemergence of center fielder Grady Sizemore, who hit a home run in his first game back from significant time off, could also bolster this anemic lineup.

Both of these clubs will get cracks at each other, starting on Monday with a four-game set in Kansas City. Not many expected that a late April series in Kansas City would be must-see baseball, but this is the case. Both are young clubs, maxing out the production from their young players right now. That isn’t a bad thing: T hat sort of mindset can really make a group of guys believe in winning, but the excitement needs to be slightly curbed.

At best, one of these teams will have a chance at the playoffs. It looks like that team will be Cleveland, but even this will be a tough sell. It could be an interesting dynamic this year, especially if Detroit, Chicago, and Minnesota continue to struggle for consistency. An early leg up on the competition could reach a tipping point this week.

This four-game series will give the winner the confidence needed to turn the hot start in April into legitimate contention in September.

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Rings aside, Marino the best ever

Posted on April 13, 2011, at 10:01 p.m.

“The Brady 6” aired earlier this week. Absent from his fourth Super Bowl victory, the need to verbally fellate Tom Brady came in the form of an ESPN documentary. I was mad and naturally I took to Facebook to express that resentment. My declaration that Dan Marino is the greatest quarterback to ever live was met with anticipated rebuttals from regional hearts who give their vote to New England’s lock-flowing, model-impregnating golden boy. Allow me to state my case.

The debate over who is and who is not the G.O.A.T. can take many forms. There are essentially two camps in this debate: the side that values the accomplishments of the player through the context of team accomplishment, and the side that values individual excellence at the position. The former will mention the likes of Joe Montana, Brady and Troy Aikman. The latter will include names like Marino, Peyton Manning and Brett Favre.

The issue I’ve always had with arguing based on championship rings is it completely excludes 50 percent of the game of football. Unlike other major sports, football players cannot control what happens on both sides of the ball.

So when Marino hangs 448 yards and six touchdowns on the New York Jets in a 45-51 loss, I tend to place the blame on the defensive players rather than the ridiculously productive quarterback.

In fact, not only does that argument neglect half of the game, it ignores arguably the most important half of the game. Twenty-nine of the 45 Super Bowl winners have finished with top-5 defenses in total scoring. Twenty-five of those 45 were teams that had top-3 defenses, and only five times in Super Bowl history has a team won with a defense that didn’t finish in the top-10 in the league. Ironically, the same people I hear argue against Marino are also quick to point out that “defense wins championships.” In Marino’s 17 professional seasons in Miami, he only had five top-10 defenses; the average defensive ranking of Dolphins defenses during the span of his career was 17th in the NFL. If you argue that Marino in any way prohibited his team from winning games and being successful, you are a moron. There’s no other way to put it.

Conversely, Brady’s championships have been aided by defenses that ranked sixth in 2001, first in 2003 and second in 2004. Football has always been the ultimate team sport. I’m sure there were many times in his career when Marino, fresh off an 85-yard touchdown drive, would have loved to go out and take his chances playing corner after seeing how abysmal his defenses consistently were.

So then it isn’t fair to judge an individual based on the accomplishments of 53 other players and an entire coaching staff. I revert my argument back to the offensive side of the ball and look at pure ability playing the position. Upon his retirement, Marino had his name on every significant passing record in NFL history. A few important things to note: He played in an era when defensive backs were given much more freedom to play physically with wide receivers, and only once in 17 seasons did he ever receive the help of a 1,000-yard rusher.

Nowadays if a cornerback so much as breathes on a receiver after five yards, it’s a spot foul and automatic first down. Back then Marino thrived in a passing system that actually challenged quarterbacks and wide receivers opposed to today’s age of structured and systematic offensive inflation.

Defensive coordinators never worried about Miami’s rushing attack, instead devoting that time to shutting down Marino in order to win, and they still couldn’t — he finished his career second all time in career victories.

Unfortunate circumstances should not cloud a player’s unquestioned greatness. I encourage everyone to get past the championship argument. It isn’t logical, based on how the game of football works and is unfair to great players who have played but never won — are Jeff Hostetler, Mark Rypien and Jim McMahon better quarterbacks that Marino was just because they were on a Super Bowl caliber team?

When you evaluate playing the quarterback position, nobody did it better than Marino. He could put the football anywhere on the field with deep accuracy the game has yet to see again. Considering the deficiencies around him with defense and the running game, Marino’s career accomplishments are only magnified and more impressive.

The fact of the matter is, if I could pick any player in NFL history to start a team — and I’m going with a quarterback with that pick — Marino is the guy I’m taking.

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Masters an event for all

Posted on April 10, 2011, at 9:06 p.m.

I used to be one of many who dreaded the thought of watching golf on TV. No televised sport requires the acquired taste that golf does, a taste I acquired during the 2010 Masters when Tiger Woods ended his hiatus.

That was a great tournament: Tiger started out strong on days one and two, but three-putted on countless occasions over the weekend. Those who anticipated Tiger returning in grand fashion had to settle with Phil Mickelson’s third Green Jacket since 2004.

This year’s installment, like last year’s, has been unforgettable. What makes the event so special is that there’s someone for everybody to root for.

Maybe you want to see wily vets like Fred Couples make a run at it; perhaps you’d love to see Lee Westwood redeem himself after going toe-to-toe with Lefty for 72 holes last year only to come up three strokes shorts; you might be like me and crave a Woods victory just so you can see the media that tore him apart a year-and-a-half ago once again swoon over his return to the top of the golf world.

There’s something for everyone, and this year’s version gave us college-aged kids something to cling to as well.

On the first day, Rory McIlroy, 21, Jason Day, 23, and Rickie Fowler, 22, were grouped together and after two rounds all three men were among the top seven names on the leaderboard, with McIlroy and Day sitting at No. 1 and No. 2.

We are at an age now when the newest professional athletes are the same age as us. Golf, though, has always seemed like an old man’s game, or at least a game that is most often dominated by experienced professionals who have paid their dues through years of coming up just short. The sweetest songs sung on the links are redemption songs.

As the Masters would have it, McIlroy collapsed in Norman-esque fashion, Fowler slowly fell to the middle of the pack and Day was the only of the young bunch to stick around.

Before growing up in front of our eyes on the last 18, the 21-year old golf prodigy from Northern Ireland had a stronghold on this tournament from the very first hole. He entered the final round with a four stroke lead, and had some people wondering if he could run away with the Green Jacket on Sunday like Woods when he won his first Masters in 1997.

McIlroy was made into a man by the daunting scene that is Augusta.

As for Tiger?

He managed to play outstanding golf, staying within two shots of the lead as he entered the clubhouse, but at the same time was still very un-Tiger, finishing at -10.

Amidst the players giving us something special to watch, Augusta National is holding its own. The majestic course is straight from a landscaper’s dream. The layout of the course, the beach sand-white bunkers that precede the lime colored carpets of the putting green, the smooth fairways that continue for days and days, the creeks that wind their way through 18 holes all contribute to the most regal playing surface in all of sports. It’s impossible not to be overcome by the surroundings, and that’s just through a high-definition TV.

The Masters truly is a tradition unlike any other.

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5 rules sport fans must abide by

Follow these to survive year’s best time

Posted on April 06, 2011, at 9:20 p.m.

A lot of things are happening in the world of sports. The college basketball tourney ended, albeit with a disappointing finale.

At least it was an excuse to drink.

The NBA is about to launch their 2011 playoff ad campaign. My guess? Black Eyed Peas awkwardly dancing around a gigantic version of the Larry O’Brien Trophy, signaling the arrival of the most drawn-out post-season in pro sports — two months to find a champion Stern?

Come on, bro.

The NHL playoffs will coincide with that, and the greenest grasses in the world once again have ballplayers on them.

Exciting times for sports fans, but that also means there’s a lot of things to keep your eyes on during this hectic time.

1. The Remote

This is No. 1 for a reason. First and foremost experience trumps all else, although the situation ultimately dictates who gets the remote that day. For instance, in any playoff games — or games with playoff implications — the master of the remote will not miss crucial plays or at-bats, but at the same time he has the wherewithal to understand his window between innings to switch over to ESPN and scope the BottomLine for a few minutes.

Conversely, if it’s a casual, mid-summer day Indians vs. Orioles matinee, it’s a great time to get work in for a less-seasoned clicker. Not only are you resting every fourth or fifth day, but you’re also prepping those young thumbs for the future.

Note: Unless they are completely helpless with the Samsung in their hand, the person whose favorite team is playing usually gets first crack at handling the most important device.

2. Pick your spots

Nobody likes watching ball with the guy who constantly feels the need to flex his inner-Schwab — always trying to create his own opportunities to speak instead of letting the game come to them. If you have something you need to say, then by all means go, but be conscious of when and where you pick your spots. And that means knowing when to keep quiet.

Yeah, it’s nice when LeBron drops 25, but when he goes 6-24 from the field in the process, it lends some perspective. It’s called inflation — learn the concept.

Also, respect different styles of play. For instance, my brother and I watch every Miami Dolphins game together. He speaks maybe two or three complete sentences the entire game, whereas I have legitimate conversations and arguments with the officials, players, coaches and anyone in striking distance of a profanity-laden tirade. But that doesn’t mean one guy cares more than the other.

3. The food and drink dynamic

This one is pretty basic. There’s really only one rule: Don’t be the ass who eats when his favorite team is trailing. Food is celebratory in the context of watching sports. Here’s the situation: bottom of the eighth, two outs, down a run with a runner in scoring position and your cleanup hitter at the dish. Slam the nacho platter if and only if he plates that runner.

But if he goes down quietly, leaving you down a run with the weaker half of your lineup due in the bottom of the ninth, and your first move is to apply bleu cheese to your buffalo wing, you need to leave the room for the remainder of the contest.

Second offense is a one-game suspension.

That’s the same thing that makes beer so magical. An appropriate reaction in either one of those scenarios is to drink. Beer is like the Kordell Stewart of drinks, just so versatile.

4. Women

This could get dicey, so I’ll approach this with as much tact as I know how to. If I didn’t address this issue I’d be ignoring one of the key concerns of every sports fan out there, and journalistically I value honesty over everything else.

Women can in fact be worthy of a spot in front of the TV come game time, no question. But the raw truth is that women devote far less of their lives, generally speaking, to sports than men. You don’t see many females hibernating, growing out their beards for three weeks, and leading an obvious and apparent existence of misery after a Week 17 loss that eliminates their team from the playoffs.

Sure, they might say, “Oh bummer, I wish they would have won,” but in five minutes they’ll be onto the next thing. It’s a gender barrier. So ladies, if you don’t pin your hopes of happiness on the success of a sports franchise, at least take the time to understand those of us who do.

If you’re in the room and it’s dead silent after a touchdown or a 3-pointer, the team we were pulling for probably didn’t register those points. Don’t tell us what a great play it was.

Note: Women should never expect to talk on the phone, or in person for that matter with their significant other for at least four hours after the final whistle. This rule does not apply in the event of a win.

5. Gambling

Just don’t judge. If your buddy is losing serious money, how can you not feel bad for him? There may not be a more painful and excruciating process than seeing a lost bet slowly develop in front of your eyes. Fourth quarter in a Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma State game and the Aggies just need a field goal to push it to overtime so you can hit that over/under bet you put $100 on.

But it’s blocked! No good, but not to worry, there’s still three minutes left and it’s a three-point game. What you don’t want is a first down on this Cowboy possession — a quick three and out will give A&M the ball with about 1:40 left around midfield, and another chance to get that kicker out there.

But on first down they pick up 8 yards, not 10 to expedite the process, but a solid 8, so that second and third down can take 45 seconds of game clock each. First down. Kneel down. Game over. Lost bet. One word exists to describe this feeling: crushing.

On that same note, don’t broadcast all of your bets, either. I want to enjoy the Thursday night college football game without having to feel bad about a late scoring frenzy that ruined your under.

Note: Stay away from your favorite team. There’s a reason Pete Rose isn’t in the Hall of Fame.

There it is. Remember, keep it simple and stick to the gameplan. You’re a team out there.

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Looking ahead to MLB’s accolades

Posted on April 03, 2011, at 9:44 p.m.

Although the 2011 MLB season is already a few games deep, I haven’t speculated enough about the season yet, so I’ll give you the MVP and Cy Young from each league — you as the reader can expect maybe one of them to be accurate, two of them will be on the disabled list by the All Star break and the other one will have the worst season of his career.

In the National League, the MVP race is wide open after frontrunner St Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols. He enters every season as the clear-cut favorite, but there are a lot of players set to challenge Fat Albert in a NL, including a plethora of young bats.

The Cy Young is in a similar situation with the NL. If Philadelphia Phillies ace, Roy Halladay, pitches like he should, it’s his award to lose.

As for the American League, the MVP discussion will yield a lot of names from the lineups of the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. That’s to be expected each year, but the AL Central has some big names that could make a play. Last year’s Cy Young winner, Seattle Mariners’ Felix Hernandez, heads the list that includes usual suspects Detroit Tigers’ Justin Verlander, Yankees’ CC Sabathia and Red Sox’ Jon Lester. But some names to watch for are C.J Wilson of the Texas Rangers and David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays.

AL MVP

As I said, this discussion will always be hijacked with sluggers from Boston and New York for two reasons: the players mentioned are capable — including but not limited to Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Kevin Youkilis, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez — and the lineups are so loaded that these superstars always have someone on base and someone protecting them in the lineup. It’s a great recipe for an MVP.

However, I’m going to go with Cano for the sole fact that he has already solidified himself in a group with Rangers’ Josh Hamilton and Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera as the best hitters in the AL. Cano will hit form his usual fifth spot in the order, so any scraps left on base by Teixeira or Rodriguez will be his to take care of. It’s scary to think what he could do — batting third or fourth with Tex or A-Rod behind him — but Cano will produce a line that is in the range of .320 batting average, 33 homeruns and 120 RBIs, while playing a rock solid second base.

The classic “doubles hitter,” Cano, will benefit from the spotlight he receives while playing in New York. As long as the Yankees are playing well and Cano is up to his usual antics, he is a leading candidate.

AL Cy Young

The last two recipients of this honor lend a lot of integrity to the award. Two years ago it was Zack Greinke playing for an awful Kansas City Royals team. Last year it was Felix Hernandez on a mediocre Mariners club. Neither player had the win totals of guys like Sabathia and Verlander, but they were clearly the best pitchers in the American League in their respective seasons. And, the voters showed that they aren’t afraid to give the award to a deserving player on a bad team.

That’s why I think King Felix has the edge on everyone in the league, and can make it two in a row. He has no-hitter stuff, and he hogs innings and strikes out a lot of batters. Those two statistics — along with ERA — are what voters look at, and Hernandez will be atop all three of those lists. He has shown the ability to overcome deficiencies around him —a rare skill in itself — and if he can improve like young players are expected to, he can make back-to-back Cy Youngs.

NL MVP

This decision was surprisingly easy to make. I’m going with Carlos Gonzalez of the Colorado Rockies. The 25-year old Rockies’ left fielder made waves last year and almost swiped the award from Joey Votto. Gonzalez was second in the majors with a .336 average, added 34 home runs, 34 doubles, 197 hits and 117 RBIs — numbers that essentially mirrored Votto’s.

To go along with being the heart of a very underrated lineup, Gonzalez will play half of his games in the most hitter-friendly ball park in the bigs — Coors Field. There is no reason to think he can’t build on his 2010 campaign as he enters the prime years of his career.

There will be a lot of candidates for this award in the fall. Though Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Joey Votto, Buster Posey and Hanley Ramirez could all churn out an MVP caliber season this year, but Gonzalez will produce the most. You’d like to see a better OBP from a guy winning this award, but one can expect 35 homers and a ton of RBI’s in Colorado. After this year, Gonzalez will emerge from obscurity playing in a small market, and establish himself as a household major league name.

NL Cy Young

Roy Halladay won this award last year, and there might not be a more dominant player in all of baseball than this guy. To pick anybody other than him would just be to entertain his challengers. Those challengers would be his teammate Cliff Lee, Ubaldo Jimenez of Colorado, Josh Johnson of Florida, and Tim Lincecum of San Francisco.

In fact, I could make a legitimate case for all four of those guys; but when tallying up the final score, I believe Halladay will be the best pitcher among this ultra-competitive group. The guy seems to throw a complete game each outing, and he spun a perfect game and a no-hitter last year. He doesn’t walk batters. He is the epitome of the perfect pitcher. Jimenez and Johnson will have microscopic ERAs and Lincecum is going to have a great year striking out a ton of hitters.

As I write this, I am tempted to pick one of Halladay’s challenger’s and run with it — make their case, and look like a genius at season’s end. But I’ve seen Doc do it too many times to bet against him.

There it is. I didn’t get too creative with the Cy Young awards, my money is on the same guys who won it last year. These are not daring or risky, but safe picks; which might be the best approach to take in a field of pitchers that is as uber-talented and diverse as this year’s.

Now just remember that none of this will materialize.

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Rose is the ‘Answer’ to MVP race

Posted on March 27, 2011, at 10:00 p.m.

If the way Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose has recently been balling seems familiar to you, let me help you out. The Bulls point guard and MVP front-runner has rehashed memories of Allen Iverson circa 2001. The similarities between the two are striking.

For starters, both are guards drafted No. 1 overall — Rose in 2008, Iverson in 1996 — and are face-of-the-franchise type players, with the expectations of a city and team resting on every floater through the lane and every no look dish.

Iverson’s presence signified a return to relevance for the Philadelphia 76ers, and now with Rose leading the Baby Bulls, fans in Chicago are sensing a new era of Bulls basketball — one they’ve been longing for since Jordan’s final title run.

Iverson was able to get his Sixers to the Finals during his MVP season in 2000-2001. As it stands today, Rose has his team atop a very competitive Eastern Conference and in prime position to represent it in the finals.

The likeness though, goes beyond the situations the two have been respectively placed in. It isn’t hard to remember what AI was like in his prime. Although he was undersized, there was a fearlessness about his game, evident every time he drove the lane. Not since Iverson has a guard so aggressively and relentlessly attacked the rim like D. Rose.

With their quickness, burst and vision, all they need is one crossover and an inch of daylight. Once they are committed to the hoop, it’s buckets, regardless of who stands in the lane.

The only difference is three inches of height which means most of the time, when Iverson took it to the hoop, it resulted in a finger roll or a kiss off the glass. Rose finishes more like a pint-sized Blake Griffin. Rose may not be as prolific a scorer as AI, but he isn’t far off the pace. After three seasons, AI averaged 24 points per game. Rose’s career average right now is 20 per game, although for the season he ranks in the top-five of the list in scoring with 25 ppg this year.

Offensively, Rose plays the game eerily similar to Iverson, and not just from a scoring perspective. Rose entered the league as a pass first, shoot second type of player. He averaged 16 points and 6.3 assists per game as a rookie.

But now, two years later, his scoring average is up nearly 10 points per game, and his assist totals have increased by almost two dimes per — from 6.3 up to 7.9. Rose’s evolution as a scorer has only increased his ability to become a better all-around offensive player. His explosiveness as a scorer and ability as a passer now has teams finding it as hard to defend Rose as they did Iverson in his heyday.

In fact, because of his athleticism, Rose may bring more to the table than Iverson.

Rose has channeled his inner “Answer” in his third year now. He is able to control the game like Iverson could, and now he can take it over and finish like Iverson used to. It is well documented that Rose attacks the basket like it owes him cash, but the most impressive part of his development has been as an outside shooter.

He’s being asked to shoot and score more often and still maintains a .439 field goal percentage. That number is down from his previous two seasons but it can be attributed to the fact that he is taking tougher shots. Throughout his first two seasons combined, he only made 32-three point shots on 132 total attempts. This season, he has made 112 on 337 attempts, increasing that percentage from the first two years, to year three by 90 points beyond the arc. His percentage from the foul line has skyrocketed to 85 percent, compared to last year’s 76 percent.

The knock on Iverson was that he was a regular season guy. He never was able to win a ring and only reached the Finals once. Rose hopes that is where the similarities end. A magnificent year is beginning to take shape, and the Bulls are gaining confidence with each and every W.

As they position themselves for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, their aspirations are at the whim of their 22-year-old native Chicagoian.

What is most scary is that Rose is still learning the game and tapping into his limitless potential. He should win the MVP this year, like Iverson did in 2001; but Rose has the potential to become an even better player than AI was.

Playoff basketball is what defines a legacy. What separates great players from iconic ones. Rose will get that opportunity this year, and a world title would mean a lot in his effort to distinguish himself among that select group of iconic players.

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Giants’ young catcher poised for big season

Posey should stuff stats in 1st full year

Posted on March 20, 2011, at 8:48 p.m.

How difficult is it to overlook a player who wins Rookie of the Year while catching and batting cleanup for the World Series champions?

Those accolades warrant status as a household name in pro baseball, so it doesn’t seem quite right when San Francisco Giants’ phenom Buster Posey gets overlooked when it comes to the best players in the National League.

Last season, two of Posey’s fellow rookies — Stephen Strasburg of Washington and Jason Heyward of Atlanta — were the subjects of adoration among baseball enthusiasts. Strasburg was touted as a once-in-a-generation pitching prospect, and Heyward became an instant legend when he launched a bomb in his much anticipated and nationally televised first career at-bat.

While this was happening, Buster Posey quietly entered the league in the middle of the summer and by October, as Strasburg ended the year on the disabled list and Heyward’s production began to slip, was the best player on the eventual champions. This year will be his first full season in the big leagues and an MVP might be next on his list.

Posey fits the mold of the new age Joe Mauer-catching prototype: capable of handling a top-tier pitching staff behind the plate and a complete hitter with power to all fields at the plate. He is a versatile young player — making 75 starts at catcher and 30 at first base last year — that San Francisco can build on in a wide-open NL.

While Posey has displayed capability as a top first baseman, his true value lies behind the plate, catching for a Giants’ pitching staff that spearheaded a title run in 2010. He plays the game a lot like Mauer does and could become the NL equivalent in 2011.

In 105 games, he hit 18 home runs, knocked in 67 runs, hit .305 and slugged over .500. Those figures are impressive for a rookie, but when you consider the every day duties of a starting catcher — studying opposing hitters, working with five different starters, calling games — the fact that he was still able to produce like that from primarily the four spot in the lineup while handling the best staff in baseball shows that “The Show” is not too grand a stage for the 23-year-old. His production on both offense and defense will increase exponentially this season.

He’s a perfect example of how market-driven today’s definition of a “superstar” is. If Posey played on the East Coast, on a high-profile team like the Chicago Cubs in the Midwest or the Dodgers in his own state, his rookie campaign, the best from a catcher since Mauer, would be much more well-known.

Once, as a junior at Florida State, Posey played all nine positions and hit a grand slam in a seven-inning game. After the math, that comes out to greater than one position played per inning. That game alone was probably reason enough for the Giants to draft him fifth overall in 2008.

The rest of the league can no longer take the Giants lightly. Maybe as a result the same will happen to their catcher. If there’s a bandwagon, there’s still some room. Tickets are available until July 12, 2011 — the day Posey makes his first career start in the All-Star Game.

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Mizzou QB draws lofty praise

Junior Gabbert would have benefited from senior year

Posted on March 20, 2011, at 8:45 p.m.

How former Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert has emerged as a potential top-five draft pick in 2011 is puzzling.

Gabbert took over as Missouri’s starting quarterback his sophomore year after the school’s all-time leading passer, Chase Daniel, graduated. He had a very good sophomore year with 24 touchdown passes to nine interceptions and 3,500 yards and over 8 yards per attempt, but he failed to build on that in 2010 during his junior season.

Rather than spectacular as his previous season would suggest, Gabbert was ordinary, throwing 16 touchdowns, nine interceptions and only 6.7 yards per attempt as a junior. So it was a surprise when Gabbert decided to leave school early when many people feel that he would have benefited from a third year of starting experience. Rather than enter as a 22-year old seasoned collegiate starter, Gabbert opted to enter the NFL Draft as a 21-year old raw prospect with a lot to work on.

Questions exist about Gabbert’s transition to the NFL from playing from a wide open offense in college. He was essentially a gun-slinging Big 12 quarterback and, besides Sam Bradford, those types of players aren’t too welcomed in the NFL. Look at Gabbert’s predecessor: Daniels’ sophomore and junior year he threw a combined 61 touchdowns and 7,833 yards; Gabbert had 40 touchdowns and 6,779 yards in that same span.

His numbers are respectable, but whether or not five more inches of height and better arm strength really make up for that gap in production between the two — especially considering Daniel went undrafted and Gabbert is talked about as a candidate for the No. 1 pick. With all of the physical ability, Gabbert still leaves you wanting more on film and with his production.

His deep ball is not overly impressive for somebody with a strong arm. He doesn’t drive the ball on deep routes like previous top picks Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford, and Matt Ryan did, and his accuracy has been called into question. When you consider his ability, a senior season would have been an opportunity to refine those skills and truly emerge as an NFL quarterbacking prospect.

His stock hasn’t seemed to suffer, though. When Stanford gunslinger Andrew Luck decided to return to school, Gabbert sprung up draft boards that needed to fill their quarterback quota: a circumstantial beneficiary.

As he stands now he just looks like a pretty good — but not exciting — collegiate quarterback who has some skills. He never really did anything substantial or impressive in college to supplement his measurables. His resume just doesn’t compare to other top quarterbacks in recent draft past and he’s out of place being discussed among them.

In fact, when you compare him to some quarterbacks in his own class — Andy Dalton, Ryan Mallet, Christian Ponder and Cam Newton — his collegiate accolades are closer to the bottom of the list.

Some team in need of help at the quarterback spot is going to take a flyer on Gabbert very high in the draft in hopes of finding the next great young quarterback. I’m not saying the guy is incapable of getting it done, but it remains to be seen.

The expectations that he will enter the league with are unrealistic based on his body of work. He deserves to be picked in the third or fourth round, not the top five.

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NFL draft No. 1 pick should go against grain

LSU’s Peterson should be first cornerback taken No. 1 overall in modern era

Posted on March 16, 2011, at 9:58 p.m.

Few sporting events annually carry the ambiguity and anticipation of the NFL Draft. Each March, about a month before the draft, a variety of names begins to emerge as potential candidates for the No. 1 overall pick.

By this time, the sexy pick after Bowl Season has already had his injuries discovered, game tape exposed and physical stature questioned. He has been picked, prodded and by now has plummeted a couple spots down the boards of draft gurus everywhere.         See Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley. He was the unanimous choice for the Carolina Panthers in January, but when he only weighed in at 297 pounds at the combine, teams began to question if he was big enough to play all positions along the defensive line. His South East Conference counterpart, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus from Alabama, who weighed in at 317 pounds, supplanted Fairley at No. 1 in a lot of mock drafts. Other names like Clemson’s defensive end Da’Quan Bowers, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton and Missouri gun-slinger Blaine Gabbert have also gotten some play in that discussion. The sleeper pick right now is Louisiana State University cornerback Patrick Peterson, and he’s picking up speed at the ideal stage in the scouting process to position himself to surpass all of those aforementioned players and be the Panthers’ choice at No. 1.

Peterson meets all the requirements from a talent standpoint to warrant the pick. He is considered by most analysts to be one of the top five available players and some say he is the safest pick. Teams picking at No. 1 prefer taking low-risk guys because of the implications in the event of a backfire. Peterson ran the second fastest 40-yard dash of the cornerbacks at the combine, with a 4.34 and at 6 feet and 219 pounds, he possesses an NFL build for the position.

To go along with great positional skills, Peterson is a weapon when the ball is in his hands. In 2010 he averaged 29.1 yards per kick return, scored twice and averaged 16.1 yards per punt return and averaged 33.5 return yards on his four interceptions. He will be a very high selection, and there is not a single player in the draft who plays their position better than Peterson.

In fact, his position is the only obvious reason to pass on the talented defender. The last and only time a defensive back was taken No. 1 overall was Gary Glick in 1956. Corners are said to not be valued as high in the draft as quarterbacks and lineman.

That being said, if there were a Madden-style fantasy draft, Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis would be a favorite to be the first non-quarterback player selected. The same could be said about Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson when he was in his prime — a player of whom Peterson is a clone.

While starting cornerbacks are easy to find, shutdown corners like Revis, Woodson, Champ Bailey and Nnamdi Asomugha are some of the rarest commodities in the league. If Carolina head coach Ron Rivera thinks Peterson can be the next Woodson, he would be wise to make him the selection. Shutdown cornerbacks in today’s NFL are needed to neutralize the Calvin Johnsons and DeSean Jacksons of the league.

A defensive lineman would fill a more immediate need for the Panthers, but the talent is deep enough in each of those spots to convince the Carolina brass to postpone addressing that need until later in the draft. The perfect storm seems to be brewing for Peterson to emerge as a favorite for the top choice.

Another star that aligned for Peterson in his campaign to get on Glick’s level: the NFL lockout. The history of the draft suggests that the incredible amounts of money dispensed to the first overall pick — last year it was $50 million guaranteed, $41.7 million the year before — narrows the choices down to players at “premium” positions — quarterback, left tackle and defensive end.

Teams are wary of awarding contracts to rookies not playing one of those three positions. But this year is different because Carolina won’t be able to sign Peterson until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, and a new agreement is certain to include a rookie-wage scale.

This scale will cut down the amount of cash given to unproven rookies and eliminating the financial variable involved with high draft picks. Not having to worry about giving their choice $55 million before he plays a snap, Carolina can truly choose the player they feel is the best in the draft regardless of position, which could very well be Peterson.

The 20-year-old LSU junior is considered to be a well-rounded, blue-chip NFL prospect and he benefits from a favorable number of teams at the top of the draft in need of a corner. His immense talent and the current status of the NFL could open the window for Peterson to be the first defensive back in the modern era to be the top choice in the draft. Not many people seem to doubt his talent, I’m not sure how Rivera has him graded out, but it’s hard to picture his evaluation differing much from other coaches and scouts.

History hints that Peterson probably won’t end up being the pick, but he plays the game on another level and could very well be the best player to emerge from this entire class.

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New Steinbrenner not like the old

Second generation Yankees owners falter with players

Posted on Feb. 23, 2011, at 11:26 p.m.

New York Yankees part owner and Senior Vice President Hank Steinbrenner needs to chill out. He is trying way too hard to be his father. It’s obvious by the way his players have responded to his recent comments that there’s not much respect going around the Yankee clubhouse for their co-owner.

That has been the case since Hank and his brother Hal took over for their late father in 2007. Recently, Hank Steinbrenner came out in the media and said that some of his players were “too busy building mansions” to focus on last year’s ALCS — presumably in response to shortstop Derek Jeter’s new home in Tampa Bay, Fla.

Steinbrenner would continue to spew by implying that the Yankees suffered a 2010 hangover by focusing too much on their 2009 title. It is ironic how his comments about last year’s team come on the eve of a fresh 2011 season.

Forced to respond, Jeter took the high road — although his comments carried plenty of annoyance — saying that he didn’t feel Steinbrenner was singling him out personally. This isn’t necessarily as true as it is politically correct. Actually, Jeter didn’t want to validate Steinbrenner’s idiocy with any legitimate response, instead worrying about a Boston Red Sox team that has reloaded in a big way this off-season. At least the people who matter for New York have their minds right.

George Steinbrenner was a man who built the Yankees into the modern dynasty they have become. It wasn’t necessarily in high favor all the time, but hard work eventually yielded a string of enduring success. This all came at the time Jeter entered the league, and he realized what Steinbrenner meant to the game and to the most storied franchise in sports. The two men had a deep mutual respect, and after the 2009 championship, Jeter’s first shout-out was dedicating the trophy to The Boss. Steinbrenner always did it his way and it worked.

Now, one half of Steinbrenner’s spawned-off co-owner duo seems to not quite grasp what that means. He surely is doing it like no other owner in the game, but that’s just because the other 29 guys choose not to criticize their own players weeks before the season starts. He doesn’t really do much heavy lifting behind the scenes. If the Yanks lure a free agent or make a savvy move, it’s because of his brother Hal and General Manager Brian Cashman.

Hank just provides the press clippings that give people like me something to write about. I actually can’t believe I fell into the trap.

Reports like this show just how desperate we all are for the season to finally begin. That way, people like Hank Steinbrenner can reluctantly be shoved back into their offices.

Maybe while he’s there he can stroll into his brother’s office to see how business is handled, so he can get over the square footage of his players’ homes and find a fifth starter.

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Cabrera’s DUIs tabloid fodder

Posted on Feb. 20, 2011, at 9:50 p.m.

Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera is once again in the news for alcohol-related problems. The Tigers’ perennial MVP candidate was arrested last week for drunk driving, and sports writers across America have opined about what it means for him and the Tigers.

Yet again, pages are being filled at the expense of a player’s personal life. The exploitation of this incident can be seen by simply going to the MLB section on ESPN’s website. Every pundit from Buster Olney to Jayson Stark has weighed in on the incident.

How much is there to really say about it? The dude got a DUI; he has a history of alcohol use. What does this have to do with the baseball season that fans eagerly await the arrival of in a few weeks?

Nothing.

Don’t get it twisted — I understand his actions have implications to the team. They will undoubtedly have to address the issue in the media, and Cabrera is currently absent from training.

But if I had to guess, the guy will still hit .320 this year, he will still club 30-35 homeruns and he will drive in over 115 runs. The bottom line is, from a baseball standpoint, he will live up to the $20 million Detroit is paying him this year.

Whenever a story like this breaks, ESPN — and I use the ESPN reference so frequently due to the seeming monopoly and influence they have on the sports media — is always there to shove a microphone in the face of whomever feels like talking about it.

The issues get trivialized and overexposed to the point that whatever happened in the first place is almost forgotten. The spotlight shifts from the incident itself to optimal face time for the “analysts” that are so “qualified” to speak on the issues.

In all honestly, what sports fan actually enjoys hearing about this sort of thing? Yes, it is important to know for the sole reason that you remain aware of what is happening, but speculating about whether Cabrera’s life is in order is pure balderdash.

It is none of our business and never has been.

Yet, this trend continues and rather than hearing about scores and transactions, we get a TMZ-esque version of the sports world force-fed ad nauseam. If they took the time to gauge the interest of their audience, I think sports writers would find most people frankly don’t give a damn.

We all have skeletons lurking in our closets. To talk about somebody else’s means you are neglecting to address your own.

All I’m saying is that the manner with which our nation’s media capitalizes on these sorts of events is more tragic than the actual events themselves. It is disgusting, primitive and regressive how much the media feasts on other people’s faults.

Rare athletic ability does not translate to inhuman actions. Let’s stop pretending that’s the case and leave the insincere sense of shock to the tabloids.

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Deadline close to zero for Pujols and the Cardinals

Posted on Feb. 13, 2011, at 9:51 p.m.

The situation with first baseman Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals is a textbook example of why being a front office executive for a professional sports team is one of the least enviable great jobs in the world. Don’t get me wrong: Raking in seven-digits a year would be tight, but when it comes time to making difficult decisions, one side will inevitably get hosed. I believe the term referring to this type of business is “cut throat.”

After the 2011 season, the seven-year, $100 million deal Pujols signed in 2004 will expire and he will become a free agent. The Cards obviously want Pujols — the best baseball player on planet Earth — to stay with the club. He just turned 31, is in the prime of his career and the man churns out MVP seasons like a machine — hence his nickname “The Machine.”

Pujols has never mentioned any desire to leave the city he has played in for his entire 10-year career. So before he becomes fair game via free agency a contract extension seems to be the best possible solution. That is where it gets dicey.

“Phat Albert” obviously knows he plays baseball better than anybody else in the game, including Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who is currently the game’s highest paid player. Naturally, he would like just compensation for his ability — that means the next time he signs his name on a contract, it will be in the vicinity of 10 years and $300 million. The way precedents work with contracts, there is essentially no way Pujols will accept any offer that pays him less than Rodriguez. His agent understands Pujols’ contract will be the new gold standard in Major League Baseball and the future contracts of superstar players will be measured against Pujols’ next deal.

For the Cardinals franchise, Pujols’ value cannot be quantified even with a record-breaking contract. He has been the face of St. Louis sports for the past decade, and rather than listing his accolades, it is much easier to say unanimously that he is the best hitter in baseball. During the 2006 campaign, he carried a Cardinal team with a 83-78 record to a World Series title — the worst record ever for a World Series-winning team — and without his stick that team doesn’t even sniff October.

However, St. Louis is by no means a lucrative sports market, and the Cardinals are operating under a budget. They are a team that is built to win through pitching, and they have done a nice job in locking up a young and talented staff.

Starters Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse and Adam Wainwright are all signed through 2012, but when you combine their salaries for this year — $33,875,000 — and add in Matt Holliday’s due — $17,000,000 — the Cardinals have four players, not including Pujols, accounting for 49 percent of their 2011 payroll. Mix in the $16 million Pujols is already scheduled to make this season and that is nearing $67 million for only five players. Those salaries carry into the future, and they aren’t getting any smaller. Dollars have been thrown around by the Cardinals in an effort to secure the nucleus of their ball club, and now they may not have enough cash flow to solidify their most precious asset.

The talks between Pujols and the team have apparently reached a stalemate. The Cardinals are facing the grim reality they know has been coming for a while. In order to keep their perennial MVP candidate at first base, they must make him baseball’s highest paid player, and now they’ve opened up their wallets to find that most of their checks have already been written out to Holliday, Carpenter, Wainwright and Lohse.                                                                                                                                                                   If they keep him, their future hopes of winning will be built around five players. Granted, those five players are in crucial positions, and there will be limited funds to surround that group with quality players at other spots. Conversely, if they let him walk, it will be a PR disaster for the ball club. While it would undoubtedly free up a mammoth chunk of spending room, they can ill afford to watch their best player, and face of the franchise, walk out of the front door.

The dilemma with the Cardinals’ front office is one of the toughest situations for any in baseball right now. They’ve built an entire team around Pujols, but now they have to pay him his due. If they let him walk, they can get three or four elite players for the price of one — but they won’t have the best hitter in the game. My inclination is eventually, either before spring training or next off-season, the Cards will find a way to make sure Pujols retires in St. Louis.

Pujols truly is a rare player and will go down as one of the greatest players in the history of the game. The decisive factor in how the Cardinals will fare after he signs is how they manage their money right now. These are the type of behind-the-scenes decisions owners and GM’s have to make, the type of decisions that can either turn a team into a yearly contender if handled properly, or send a team plummeting to the basement if handled poorly.

As it stands now, the Cardinals are yearly contenders and the main reason is because of how valuable Pujols is. We are about to find out how much he’s really worth to St. Louis — either in his salary or his absence.

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Defensive line focus of 2011 NFL draft

Posted on Feb. 13, 2011, at 9:48 p.m.

NFL Draft — the most of any position.

This trend reflects a shift in emphasis and the growing importance of being able to throw the football. Also reflective of that trend is the fact that the second most frequently drafted position in the top-five since 2000 is defensive linemen with 12.

For every time a young quarterback with unlimited potential and the expectations of carrying a franchise enters the league, an equally promising d-lineman, hailed and glorified as the next great pass rusher neutralizes that advantage — and the chess match between offensive and defensive minded coaches rages on.

What all of these defensive linemen — with maybe the exception of Tyson Jackson, 2009 Kansas City Chiefs No. 3 overall — have in common is that they possessed elite pass rushing skills coming out of college. Being able to pressure the quarterback is the prerequisite for a big body on defense to be taken that high.

Of those 12 defensive linemen, seven played defensive end in the NFL. Only two of those ends — Chicago Bears’ Julius Peppers, 2002 Carolina Panthers No. 2 overall, and Mario Williams, 2006 Houston Texans No. 1 overall — have truly lived up to their draft status and become dominant, game-changing players.

The one glaring bust of that group is Courtney Brown, selected No. 1 overall by Cleveland in 2000, who had significant trouble staying healthy throughout his career.

Justin Smith, 2001 Cincinnati Bengals No. 4 overall, has had a very good professional career with the Bengals and 49ers, but hasn’t turned out to be a superstar. Gaines Adams, 2007 Tampa Bay Buccaneers No. 4 overall, tragically passed away last year after only a few seasons in the league, and Chris Long, 2008 St. Louis Rams No. 2 overall, is looking more like Smith rather than fellow No. 2 overall pick Peppers. Jackson is still trying to find his way as a starter in the league — but he is still young.

The defensive tackles have had less success than the ends. Blatant top-five busts were Gerard Warren, 2001 Cleveland Browns No. 3 overall, who managed to salvage his career late but was never anything more than a rotational player and DeWayne Robertson, 2003 New York Jets No. 4 overall.

Kansas City went along the defensive line with a top five pick two years in a row and nearly missed on both, drafting Jackson, No. 3 overall in 2009, and Louisiana State University defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, No. 5 overall in 2008. The strategy was to cement a young line for the 3-4 scheme, but neither player has yet lived up to their billing.

Dorsey now plays both positions on the line and had a solid 2010 campaign that lends hope to his future, and like Jackson, he is very raw and it is too early to tell if he was worthy of the pick. Last year’s draft saw Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy go No. 2 and No. 3 overall, respectively. Suh is already an All-Pro and one of the best tackles in the league and McCoy showed promise before suffering a season ending injury.

The hit-and-miss rate for defensive lineman in the top-five is around 50 percent, which is fairly standard among any position. The evolving trend has general managers and scouts analyzing and redefining what it takes to develop from a raw collegiate prospect to a quarterback’s worst nightmare.

This year, four defensive linemen are projected as potential top-five draft picks. Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers, Alabama’s Marcell Dareus, North Carolina’s Robert Quinn and Auburn’s Nick Fairley are all options for draft slots one through five this year. Fairley and Bowers are projected as most likely to be the Panthers’ choice at No. 1 in most mock drafts.

Only time will tell how and where their careers will unfold, but one thing is certain, they’re all going to get their shot to offset the newest crop of quarterbacks.

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Labor issues linger over NFL

Lockout seems plausible given large discrepancies between owners and players

Posted on Feb. 06, 2011, at 11:47 p.m.

Overshadowed by the Super Bowl and the recent Hall of Fame class is the NFL’s doomsday clock, which is now approaching — well, I don’t know how doomsday clocks work, so I’ll just say T-minus 26 days and hope you get the point.

The owners and players have until March 4, when the current collective bargaining agreement expires, to hammer out a deal. Otherwise, America’s most popular professional sport will officially be halted.

One thing necessary to understand is this is not a strike. The players will not be refusing to play; rather; the owners will lock the doors of the 32 teams’ headquarters so players and coaches are unable to perform their regular offseason business.

If this is the case, those doors will remain locked until the two sides reach an agreement — a blatant power play by the billionaire owners of the league.

This won’t signal any finality. In other words, in the event of a lock-out, the two sides can still negotiate and try to find a settlement before the 2011 season starts.

If March 4 passes with no new deal, that will mean a freeze on all offseason activity. Players scheduled to become free agents will be unable to seek a new employer. Teams will not be able to trade or release players.

The only evidence that there will be an active National Football League will be the 2011 NFL Draft — scheduled to take place from April 28-30 — and the subsequent pre-draft workouts and scouting events. Although a player cannot be signed after being drafted, the team has the rights to the rookie.

It has been said for quite some time now, by both players and owners alike, that there will not be a football season next fall.

Pause to imagine that for a moment. No pro football. None.

As harsh and grim a reality as that would be, we all have reason to feel optimistic. First, the two sides met on Saturday for several hours to discuss negotiations. Many feel this is a positive step, as it was the first time discussions were held since mid-November.

Secondly, the NFL’s Stalin, commissioner Roger Goodell, has something to gain here — and if you have followed the NFL since 2006 you are aware that when Lord Goodell wants to get something done, he gets it done.

If he faces opposition, he pushes it through anyway, à la ObamaCare. In this case not only is Goodell’s legacy on the line — he will forever be remembered as the commissioner that couldn’t prevent the league from plummeting while at its highest level of popularity — but he also wants to cement an 18-game regular season schedule and this new collective bargaining agreement presents him with the best opportunity to implement it.

Goodell said this week that if a deal isn’t done by March 4, the likelihood that one is reached at all will decrease.

“There will be a number of things that both sides will consider that strategically, I believe, will move us away from the negotiating table rather than towards the negotiating table,” he said.

Basically the window is currently as wide as it will ever get for an agreement to be reached.

Some elements that are stalling the process are disagreements on how to divide revenue among players’ salaries and owners’ profits. The 18-game schedule is something the Players’ Union and their head DeMaurice Smith have openly opposed because they feel it will jeopardize player safety.

The irony in that issue is that Goodell has consciously made an effort to improve safety conditions in the league and is now trying to forge an 18-game schedule that his own players believe will increase the number of injuries because they will have to play two extra games per season.

Goodell tries to justify this by saying the last two preseason games will serve as the first two regular season games and in that regard the duration of the season will be the same.

Frankly, that is an insult to football fans and players alike, because Goodell knows damn well, just like the rest of us, that starters do not play extensively in those final two preseason games. Not only does this risk injury for the marquee names, it eliminates two crucial weeks for young players to make a name for themselves and achieve their dream of earning a roster spot for an NFL team. If this deal goes through, and it is highlighted by a new 18-game regular season schedule, it will be yet another glaring example of Goodell’s hypocritical tyranny.

All of this balking between the Players’ Union and the league are petty and ridiculous. Imagining a scenario where the country’s trademark sport, something people identify America with, ceases to exist just seems too farfetched to be real.

I have said all along that there will absolutely be football next season. I just don’t see any scenario where billionaires and millionaires can’t find a way to distribute their money in a manner that appeases both sides. There is so much of it floating around, you’d think each side can grab an adequate slice. Too much is riding on this new CBA for the two sides to not realize the need to compromise and work it out.

When March 4 comes, and there is a new collective bargaining agreement in place for the next 10 years or so, football fans across America will smirk — in disgust and disappointment — and realize how pathetic and foolish the entire process really was.

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UM can’t topple first-place BU

Black Bears drops 7 straight in AEC

Posted on Feb. 02, 2011, at 11:03 p.m.

The University of Maine women’s basketball team out-played top-ranked and undefeated Boston University for the last 30 minutes of Tuesday night’s game.

Unfortunately for the home team, the first 10 minutes were highlighted by the Terriers’ 32-6 run. The damage control from that point on wasn’t enough, as the Black Bears dropped the America East Conference matchup 71-59.

The Black Bears fall to 3-19 and 1-9 in America East play, while the Terriers improve to 13-9 and a perfect 10-0 in conference.

Terriers junior guard Alex Young had 11 of her 22 points within the first five minutes of the game, hitting three 3-pointers as the Terriers jumped to a 15-2 lead early on in Alfond Arena. The Black Bears struggled with consistency in the first half, as missed shots and poor offensive rebounding allowed for easy transition buckets for BU.

When the Terriers slowed the tempo, they were able to spread out Maine’s defense and find open looks deep. The ability of BU to hoist it from beyond the arc turned out to be the deciding factor in the game, as they finished 12-31 from 3-point range. Young had six of those and fellow sophomore guard Chantell Alford added five of her own.

Maine responded after going down early with a 13-2 run of their own, closing the gap late in the first half 34-19. After BU went cold, missing shots and turning the ball over, UMaine crawled back into the contest.

Once trailing by 26 points early in the second half, the Black Bears cut the lead to within three. Guards freshman Ashleigh Roberts, sophomore Amber Smith and sophomore Katelyn Vanderhoff, with 13 points each for the contest, spearheaded the late push, one that was complemented with great defense — the Terriers only hit two field goals during a 10-minute stretch in the second half — and efficiency from the line, 13-15 free throws as a team.

However, the rally subsided and the dagger came when the score was 59-53. After a turnover on UMaine’s end, BU brought the ball down and Young drilled a three to push the lead to nine. It was a five-point swing late in the game and Maine was never able to recover.

Williams, Smith and Vanderhoff led the scoring for Maine. On the other side, Alford had a game-high 28 points for the Terriers in victory.

The Black Bears look to halt their losing streak on the road against the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. Tipoff is scheduled for Saturday at noon.

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Super Bowl XLV preview

Posted on Feb. 02, 2011, at 11:00 p.m.

Super Bowl XLV is only a few days away.

Maybe, just maybe, someday my squad — the Miami Dolphins — will play for the Lombardi Trophy. I can’t imagine what the feeling will be like. I probably won’t be able to eat or sleep the entire week.

Back to reality. They will be at home, like I will, slaying hot wings and crushing beers — acting like they are happy but really just drowning their misery with hot sauce and liquor. I’m wasting words — time to break down this year’s installment between AFC champs the Pittsburgh Steelers and NFC representative the Green Bay Packers.

When the Packers have the ball

Aaron Rodgers is playing ridiculous football right now and has been all year long. A minor slip-up in the NFC title game doesn’t take away from what he did in the previous two playoff games, completing 49 of 63 passes for 546 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions.

Pittsburgh’s focus will be on shutting down Rodgers and the passing game, instead of worrying about Green Bay’s 24th-ranked rushing attack. The Packers like to spread the ball around to a receiving corps that is one of the best in the game at creating after the catch.

This will actually play into Pittsburgh’s hands. Green Bay doesn’t use the tight end extensively in the passing game, creating short edges for linebackers Lamarr Woodley, James Harrison, and the Steelers’ pass rush to pressure Rodgers and disrupt Green Bay’s pass game.

Steelers’ defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will do what he does best: Dial up the blitz and count on his secondary to make plays behind it. Safety Troy Polamalu was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year this week and you should believe that Rodgers is aware of this. Although I don’t think they are shy to throw Polamalu’s way, they will limit their chances and look to pick on corners Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden instead.

Green Bay has managed to get by with a serviceable rushing attack this postseason, but it isn’t anything spectacular. On Sunday they face the league’s No. 1 ranked rushing defense and yards will be tough to come by. The Pack doesn’t need to be great running the ball, but they must establish some sort of production to make Pittsburgh respect the run.

If they cannot do that, the Steelers will pin their ears back and send Woodley and Harrison after Rodgers all day. Look for Green Bay to establish that running game early so later in the game they can feel comfortable dropping back and throwing the football.

The Packers cannot afford to become one-dimensional in this game, and that will be their biggest test as a team: Employing a mediocre run game against one of the best defensive fronts in football.

This matchup is strength vs. strength. Green Bay runs one of the most efficient offenses in the NFL and when they are clicking, nobody moves it better than them, primarily by using quick, short passes and taking the occasional shot deep.

On the other hand, not a whole lot of teams have had success against the 2011 Steel Curtain. There have been times this year that they’ve lapsed, but it is incredibly difficult to attack this defense for 60 minutes with consistent success. Eventually they just seem to make the plays that matter in the most crucial moments.

It’s the immovable object against the unstoppable force. If the unstoppable force (Green Bay’s offense) prevails, it will be because they took their lumps, stuck to the game plan, and grinded it out.

When the Steelers have the ball

How this offense manages to be as good as they are is one of the biggest mysteries in the NFL. They have a mediocre offensive line — the injury to Pro Bowl center Maurice Pouncey puts a strain on that — a collection of role players at receiver, and a quarterback that went 10/19 for 133 yards and two picks in the AFC title game.

Nothing is flashy or pretty or done the way it is drawn up. But for all of their deficiencies, the offensive line moves the defense off the ball in crucial third down running situations and QB Ben Roethlisberger is the most clutch quarterback in football. Like the defense, they get it done at the most vital points of the game. They extend drives constantly and convert touchdowns in the red zone.

The Packers’ defense has studied ad nauseam on how to bring down Roethlisberger. The last meeting between these two teams saw Big Ben stroke the rock to the tune of 503 yards. Green Bay missed initial opportunities to sack Roethlisberger and they’ve made a conscious effort to correct during their preparations.

The biggest part of Roethlisberger’s game is extending plays and his receivers do a great job of improvising and breaking off their routes to get open as he scrambles.

Green Bay will try to take this away from Pittsburgh by forcing them to revert to a traditional style of throwing the ball. The Packers boast one of the best cornerback tandems in football, with Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams. Linebacker Clay Matthews — who has the second best head of hair in this game behind Polamalu and finished second to Polamalu in the DPOY voting — will make it his mission to be in Roethlisberger’s grill piece all game. Like the Steelers, this Packer defense will try to dictate the tempo of the game by blitzing frequently and in many different scenarios.

Running back Rashard Mendenhall and the Steelers’ offensive line will be asked to counter the aggressive Packer defense by pounding the ball. The Packers’ front seven have been especially impressive this post-season so that will be no easy task. The Steelers boast one of the best deep threats in the game in Mike Wallace who averages, 21 yards per catch, as well as one of the best tight ends in Heath Miller. Miller is the unsung hero of the Steelers’ offense. He is one of the best blocking tight ends in football and a threat in the passing game.

Prediction

Both quarterbacks are their team’s catalysts for victory and how each one plays against the other’s defense will likely be the decisive factor. Everything about this game says that the Steelers should win. They have the experience, the clutch quarterback, the stout defense, and a functional running game.

I don’t care. I will throw all logic out the window and take the best quarterback in football at the moment, Aaron Rodgers, to return the Lombardi Trophy back home with a 27-21 Green Bay victory.

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The great debate: Kobe vs. MJ

Posted on Jan. 30, 2011, at 10:30 p.m.

A few nights ago I was getting wild, playing board games with a few of my boys and inevitably, we came to the point in the night when it was time to debate some sports-related topic.

This evening the discussion was on who, in 10 years or so, will be regarded as the best player in NBA history. I was debating two traditionalists who informed me that “MJ is just MJ, nobody is better than him.”

It’s a tough stance to take, having to argue against Michael Jordan in a greatest of all-time debate, but I dug into the ground and held my position, contesting that when he retires Kobe Bryant will have the more impressive resume and thus be considered the best player in NBA history.

It is necessary to mention that the iconic centers Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were introduced into the discussion. Chamberlain once averaged a ridiculous 50 points per game for an entire season, and Russell won 11 titles in 13 seasons with the Celtics. Both men will forever have their iconic, almost mythical status’ firmly rooted among those who follow the game — but considering the era in which they played and their positions, they must be excluded from the rest of the discussion.

Looking at their games, numbers aside, Kobe and Jordan share many similarities. Both are capable of elite defensive play — Kobe has been on the NBA’s all defense team eight times, Jordan nine. Both are capable of unleashing a frenzy of points and when talking about players who you want taking the last shot, it’s Kobe and MJ in no particular order.

Phil Jackson, the man who coached both players for the majority of their respective careers, has acknowledged the two are in the same category. When asked to judge Kobe through MJ-tinted glasses, Jackson responded, “He’s comparable,” which is as far as the savvy Jackson will comment on this issue.

In terms of numbers, the two men differ in where they are great. Jordan is the superior scorer, having averaged 30 points per game for his career and ending with a .497 field goal percentage. In comparison Kobe has 25 ppg with a .455.

When Jordan retired, he held the record for highest career points per game, but when Kobe retires, he will likely pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the game’s all-time leading scorer.

This debate always seems to make its way back to championships. To a certain extent this is important to consider because in basketball the influence of one player on a team is far greater than in other pro sports.

For instance, it isn’t fair to judge the quality of a player based solely on their Lombardi Trophies, World Series Rings or the number of times they’ve hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup simply because individuals are much more dependent on the team around them.

In basketball, at least in quick bursts, one player can take over an entire game — see: Reggie Miller, game one of the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals vs. the Knicks.

Therefore, one player can mean more to a championship team in basketball than in any other sport. Kobe has five rings and Jordan has six, but trumping them both is Jackson who, as a coach, with 11 combined championships, was the mastermind of the Bulls’ dynasty of the 90s and the Lakers’ dynasty of the 2000s. It is reasonable to say that Jackson, not Kobe or Jordan, is the key proprietor of those championships.

Focusing the discussion not on how many titles each man has, but on the impact each player had on winning those titles, Jordan won his six rings between the ages of 28 and 35 — the prime years of his career — with an unmatched supporting cast.

Scottie Pippen, who boasts a Hall of Fame résumé, played second fiddle to Jordan his whole career. Dennis Rodman is arguably the greatest rebounder the game has ever seen — and to go with it — he brought a level of intensity and competition that perfectly complimented Jordan’s dominance.

When you sprinkle in role players like Tony Kukoc, Horace Grant and Steve Kerr, those Bull rosters of the mid-90s are in the discussion for some of the most successful single season teams in history.

Bryant’s early championship years will always associated with Shaquille O’Neal. During the early 2000s, O’Neal was the most dominant player in basketball and together he and Kobe delivered three straight titles from 2000-2002.

Those teams were laden with role players like Derek Fisher, Rick Fox and Robert Horry, but besides the 2000 team that won 67 regular season games, the Bulls’ teams from the 90s were superior based on win totals. However, Kobe was still a pup and his role to Los Angeles was not as crucial as Jordan’s was to Chicago. It can be said though that Kobe and Shaq were the driving forces behind that run.

In this sense, Kobe did as much with less while playing a smaller role, and Jordan had the better team around him while playing a much larger role.

The past two seasons have rekindled Bryant’s championship success. With back-to-back titles bringing his total to five, he silenced all the critics who said he couldn’t win without Shaq.

For those pointing at Pau Gasol as Kobe’s “modern day Shaq,” it should be noted that Gasol is a great player, but not nearly as dominant as O’Neal was. Every championship team has superb players, including Gasol, but Kobe spearheaded the title runs.

Kobe was far more valuable to his team in these recent back-to-back championships than Jordan was to the Bulls simply because Kobe was doing it alone. For these reasons, the championship discussion as it stands today is moot. If one player has the advantage over the other in this category, it is only by a minimal matter of preference.

But the key phrase is “as it stands today.”

This is a perfect time to compare the two because their work is at an equal point, Kobe only having played four fewer career games than Jordan. Throughout those games Jordan has outscored Kobe by over 5000 points.

As of today, the two careers are comparable with a slight advantage to Jordan in virtually every category — but Jordan tallied his final point at age 40 while Kobe just turned 32. He still has at least another five years of dominance.

The longevity of Bryant’s career when he retires will be his crowning achievement and he will eventually surpass Jordan in most cumulative statistical categories. He is only one off the pace in championships and the Lakers will be a contender this season once again.

Some people might be reluctant to pass the torch, some may have their opinion clouded by the “23” brand and some — like my editor — will always put “his airness” over “the Black Mamba.”

But the fact remains — at the time of his retirement, Kobe will have the most impressive résumé of any player to ever play the game. To go with that, he has been as— if not more — influential as Jordan was both to their respective eras, and in shaping their respective teamss dynasties.

Good enough for the greatest of all time in my book.

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Disparity in conferences good for NFL

Posted on Jan. 23, 2011, at 10:49 p.m.

The Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers squared off in Super Bowl 37 in what some people called “The Pirate Bowl.”

The game was the first Super Bowl in league history to feature the league’s No. 1 ranked offense in the Raiders going up against its No. 1 defense in the Bucs. It marked the end of a long age of losing for the Bucs. Upon its conclusion, a new era of football in the AFC was ushered in.

Since that game went final, only three teams in that seven-year stretch — the Pittsburgh Steelers, the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts — have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl. In that same time period, the NFC has sent a different representative each year.

In fact, since 2002, nine different teams have been crowned NFC champs. What does this mean? Probably nothing, but it provides a unique perspective on the long-standing debate: Which conference is better?

Before addressing that question, it is important to note there is a more even level of competition in the NFC. Since that 2002 Super Bowl, 13 of the 16 teams have captured a division title. Only the San Francisco 49ers, the Detroit Lions and the Washington Redskins have failed to do so. It’s a conference comprised of a lot of closely matched teams, but not a single dominant one.

While there have been perennial contenders such as the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, the past decade saw the rise of several historical losers — the Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Bucs, New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals were all able to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.

If you played “Madden” or followed pro football before the year 2000, you know that those four teams used to be the dumpster of the NFL. But they were all able to reach the apex in the decade of parity in the NFC, and since 2001 over half of the conference has had the opportunity to win the Lombardi Trophy.

On the other side, in the AFC, there are a lot of familiar faces. The San Diego Chargers has essentially monopolized the West — except for the occasional breakout season from either the Kansas City Chiefs or Denver Broncos — the Steelers and Ravens have passed the baton back and forth in the North, and New England and Indianapolis have been the teams to beat in the East and South respectively.

Whereas most teams in the NFC have staked their claim as divisional champs, the AFC has only seen 10 of its 16 teams win a division crown. The New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans, Buffalo Bills and Oakland Raiders have all failed to finish first in their respective divisions.

Year in and year out, more teams in the NFC have reason to feel good about their post-season prospects than their counterparts in the AFC.

The usual suspects in the AFC playoffs means that dominance reigns over the conference. The fresh faces in the NFC each year means there are good teams, but no great ones. Addressing the initial question, which conference is superior, is nothing more than a matter of preference.

If you define the word “superior” based on how competitive the race for the playoffs is, then you’re an NFC kind of person. If you define it based on which conference has the league’s best teams, cast your vote for the AFC.

The parity in the NFC is certainly enjoyable if you don’t follow a particular team, but the AFC and the power at the top of that conference is superior. Based on Super Bowls alone, the AFC holds a dominant 5-2 advantage since the “Pirate Bowl.”

One conference is known for its parity and the other is known for its consistent heavy hitters, and the two polar opposites create an interesting dynamic to the NFL. It truly creates a rift between the two sides, a dividing line if you will, and that’s the way it should be. They are different in style and in history. Before the merger of 1970 the NFC (or NFL as it was also known) was a traditional brand of football, and the AFC was a more progressive brand, introducing new concepts such as the two-point conversion and putting names on player’s jerseys.

Since that merger, the two conferences have always been different. Whether it be trading dynasties in the 70s, 80s and 90s or taking turns with long runs of Super Bowl dominance, there has always been some sort of barrier that creates a unique individuality for each one. Now, in modern terms, that barrier exists in the two very different paths that AFC and NFC teams must take to the playoffs.

But which side is better this year? I’m not sure. Thankfully, we still have two weeks to make up our minds.

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War of the words fuels AFC East duel

Posted on Jan. 12, 2011, at 10:58 p.m.

As expected, Jets head coach Rex Ryan has been busy making game plans, watching film, organizing team activities — and talking about his opponent — and nobody likes to talk as much as Rex does. It began almost immediately after the game when Ryan commented on Brady’s whereabouts during the Patriots’ bye week. While the Jets were in Indianapolis playing the Colts, Brady was on Broadway watching “Lombardi” with his supermodel wife, prompting Ryan to say, “Peyton would have been watching us.”

Ryan has a habit of likening Brady to Peyton Manning. While preparing for the Colts, he said “there’s nobody like this guy in the league. Nobody studies like him. I know Brady thinks he does.”

Quotes from Ryan can fill this entire page, from the blatant to the implied —“I recognize this week, this is about Bill Belichick vs. Rex Ryan. There’s no question about it. It’s personal.” For those counting at home, this is the second consecutive week the Jets will play a playoff game, which their head coach has dubbed “personal.” A lot of fighting words are flowing out of East Rutherford, N.J.

It has been said that Ryan’s over-the-top, sometimes exaggerated quotes are a ploy to alleviate the pressure from his players during the week. By shouldering the load, his players can focus on X’s and O’s. It’s effective in that sense no doubt, but at the same time it paints a massive bull’s-eye on his players’ backs.

Perhaps no team this season has been as scrutinized, dissected, talked about and hated as the New York Jets. They have assumed the personality of their head coach — unwavering confidence that can be perceived by those reading the press clippings as arrogant. When the full transcript of his press conferences are read it is clear that Ryan is a man who believes his team can win, but despite his headlining quotations he understands the quality of his opponent — never shy to acknowledge superiority to both himself and his team when necessary.

His secessions, amid all of his self-promoting, lends him credibility and allows for his words to remain in context. He has mastered an art with the media few NFL coaches can duplicate.

On the other side, the Patriots are saying all of the right things. This week Belichick has praised the Jets secondary and their quarterback, while refusing to match the eccentrics of his counterpart. Recently Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie was quoted as calling Tom Brady an “assh—,” going on to say “f— him.”

Brady took it all in stride and, like Belichick, dismissed the opportunity to rebut. “I’ve been called worse,” he said, “but he’s a good player.” New England’s politically correct statements in response are almost satirical, but neither team would have it any other way. They each have their own style of taking care of business.

So far, it has worked for both teams. The matchup on Sunday will pit New England’s stoicism against New York’s bravado and the winner will play for a chance to go to the Super Bowl. The Jets defeated New England in week two 28-14 in a game they controlled the entire time.

The Patriots responded by pounding the Jets 45-3 in their second meeting on Monday Night Football. Sunday is the decisive match in this three game series.

For both teams, it’s the biggest game of the year. Sunday at 4:30 p.m., the manner in which each team chooses its words will be inconsequential.

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Continuity is key to NFL success

Posted on Jan. 12, 2011, at 10:55 p.m.

Stephen Ross, the top dog in the Miami Dolphins’ front office, while seeking a quick fix to his team’s glaring deficiencies, exemplified how poorly most owners grasp the concept of achieving success in the National Football League.

Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano posted back-to-back 7-9 seasons in 2009 and 2010, falling well short of expectations in both seasons — inevitably, outrage ensued in the media, with the fans and with Ross himself — “I’m as frustrated as the fans are,” the Dolphins owner said. Naturally, impulse trumped logic, and Ross got on a plane to California to court then-Stanford head coach and former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh to be the next head coach of the Dolphins.

The problem: Sparano still had the job. Ross was so enamored by Harbaugh that he offered to make him the highest paid coach in football. Harbaugh balked at the idea and Ross returned to Miami without his sexy high-profile name. What he got was a massive public relations mess and a severed relationship with the man he was stuck with to coach his team. In basic terms, Ross cheated on Sparano, offering the job to somebody while the job was Tony’s.

Ironically, Ross’ ridiculous tactical approach and disloyalty to Sparano is probably what caused Harbaugh to say no to his offer. Not only did Ross hose Sparano, there was no structure to his plan to hire a new coach. It sprouted up suddenly and he didn’t even remove the person he was trying to replace.

There aren’t many people who would want to coach for an owner like that — certainly not the stoic Harbaugh.

For Dolphins fans and the team alike, it was the best possible outcome. Dumping Sparano after only three seasons and bringing in an entire new coaching staff and mindset to the organization would not do anything to improve the team drastically enough to bury this season’s disappointment.

Three seasons isn’t even enough time for the young players that Sparano drafted to develop into impact players. Just now they are developing into effective starters, the sensible approach is to let the man who put them there coach into the prime of their respective careers — but Ross wanted to hit the refresh button. His plan failed, and to patch things up he extended Tony Sparano’s contract another two years.

Yes, that is correct, he tried to replace the man — failed — and as a result offered that same man the opportunity to coach for an additional three seasons. He had one year remaining before the two-year extension.

The sequence makes no sense but unfortunately is frequent in the NFL and is holding back a lot of teams from becoming contenders, including Harbaugh’s new team, the San Francisco 49ers. For the third time in five years the Niners are bringing in a new man to run their team. That means three different philosophies, three different coaching staffs, three different mindsets. In that same time period, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, New England, the Giants, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Green Bay have annually fielded playoff caliber squads while revamping their rosters with young talent.

The difference between these teams and teams like San Francisco is the key ingredient to a successful organization: continuity. The teams with success are the ones that have been pounding away at a consistent plan each year, realizing that only one of 32 teams per season achieves the ultimate goal. The reason Tom Coughlin retained his job after missing the playoffs for a second straight year is because the Giants’ brass believes in the plan they have in place.

Andy Reid has been with Philadelphia since 1999, enduring several failures and hardships along the way, and on more than one occasion, after a bad year, whispers that Reid should be fired were heard. He still has his job and now the Eagles regularly have reservations for the postseason in the NFC. Bill Belichick and New England are well known to be consistent contenders, and in Indianapolis, management has created a seamless transition from one head coach — Tony Dungy — to another — Jim Caldwell — with Super Bowl appearances by each.

An epidemic is currently eating away at the integrity of the NFL. Incompetent owners are seeking quick public relation fixes instead of focusing on surrounding themselves with experienced professionals, the people who can avoid the need for a “fix” altogether.

Conversely, the best owners are the ones that don’t get in their own way by pretending to be anything more than a very rich fan. Most of these owners are businessman with no football background. The front office hierarchy — GM, coach, VP of player personnel and so on — is there for a reason, so that experience and knowledge precede emotion and impulse when dealing with football operations.

Quality football teams at the professional level take time to develop. Success doesn’t come in one year. Teams need time and coaches need time.

Obviously I have it all figured out. Now, somebody get me a damn job.

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Unhappily ever after

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Thursday, December 9th, 2010, 2:06 am
A bizarre press conference ended an equally bizarre sequence of contract negotiations between Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees.

On Tuesday, Jeter and the Yankee brass were in Tampa, FL to announce the iconic shortstop’s new 3 year, $51 million contract. Given Jeter’s tenure and importance to the organization, it was a formality that Jeter would sign with the only club he’s ever played for and both sides would be delighted moving forward.

Instead, the Yankees were unwilling to pay the 36-year-old the kind of money he wanted and rather than the four to five year contract Jeter was asking for, the Yankees felt like three years was more appropriate. When he got the chance to speak publicly about it, Jeter was “angry.”

Jeter said his anger came from “how public” the contract negotiations became, as well as the response he got from the Yankee front office telling him to test the free-agent market for a better offer if he didn’t like theirs.

“I was the one who said, ‘I wasn’t going to do it.’ To hear the organization to tell me to go shop it, when I just told you I wasn’t going to, yeah, if I’m going to be honest I was angry about it,” Jeter said as owner Hal Steinbrenner and general manager Brian Cashman — the two men handling the negotiations on behalf of the Yankees — sat by and listened. Cashman responded by reciprocating Jeter’s sentiments, “Anger met anger…You get past it and you move forward,” he said, referring to the manner in which the talks between both sides became the subject of daily media attention. Steinbrenner even chimed in, “We were all upset and a little bit angry that it reached the level that it did.”

Everybody is just pissed off about the whole thing. Tough to blame them though really, when you think about it. Jeter debuted for the Yankees in 1995. That means they’ve been with each other for 16 years. For 16 years the Bombers have filled their void at shortstop with Jeter’s services; and on the other end, Jeter doesn’t even know what it feels like to wear another jersey. You have to appreciate the commitment displayed for the better part of two decades, but you also can’t be too shocked if one side got a little bit “curious” during the brief, one-month separation. Jeter said he didn’t, compromising his initial contract demands for a more humble —and realistic — deal worth half the money he originally asked for. Were the Yankees looking for a younger prize?

The Yankees come out looking like they can’t live without Jeter, which is essentially true. No baseball fan wanted to see No. 2 in a different uniform, and the sheer jealousy that would come of him wearing anything other than pinstripes was probably enough to fuel a consensual agreement.

The relationship has weathered its biggest storm yet, and in the end, love prevailed. The anger has subsided and Jeter is anxious to put the 2010 season behind him and start anew with a fresh contract. “You like to think that last year was a hiccup. It is my job to prove that it was.”

A silver-lining can be found in the suddenness of the drop-off in his numbers. In 2009 his numbers were vintage Jeter with .334, 212 hits, 107 runs at the top of a Yankee lineup that won the World Series. The cliff-like fall can either be a mirage — one bad season in a brilliant career — or an abrupt beginning to the end.

After a messy breakup, Jeter and the Yanks are back together again. He has three years and $51 million dollars to try to make it work.

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NFL quarterbacks have it too easy

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Thursday, December 2nd, 2010, 12:09 am
The times, they are a-changin’. The NFL has fully made the transition from a physical game to a finesse game. The mantra “three yards and a cloud of dust” no longer applies. Three starting quarterbacks are evidence of that: Kansas City’s Matt Cassel, Chicago’s Kyle Orton and St. Louis Sam Bradford.

Quarterback may still be the toughest position to play in sports, but recent changes to the pro game have facilitated the success of many current passers and statistics today are bloated compared to the game fifteen years ago.

Bump-and-run coverage used to be a staple of championship teams who had physical cornerbacks to shut down the passing game, but now a defensive back can be called for pass interference, holding, or illegal contact throughout the duration of the play.

The game has been made easier for quarterback-wide receiver tandems because rules don’t allow defenses to impose their will upon the opposing offense.

The term “toughness” was once used to define a quarterback. Durability and dependability were valued, which made the position so difficult to play. When the forward pass was invented, up until the early 2000’s, quarterbacks went through hell each Sunday for three consecutive hours.

To go with the unique skills of the position such as accuracy, anticipation and arm strength, the man behind center also had to have the ability to get his ass perpetually beaten, then get up, straighten his helmet, and call the next play in the huddle.

You could be the most gifted passer, but if you couldn’t hang in there and sustain a hit from a blitzing middle linebacker, you didn’t play. In today’s NFL, that isn’t even a worry. Sure, quarterbacks get hit, but at most it’s only 14 or 15 times a game and when speaking of substantial hits, the number is more like two or three.

Other variables can be attributed to this, such as the evolution of the passing game (quick timing patterns rather than long-developing ones) allowing the quarterback to get the ball out of his hands long before the defender can even smell the sweat from the quarterback’s forehead. It used to be that a QB expected to get lit up on almost every play.

But the transformation is complete. Toughness is no longer an important characteristic of a quarterback because most hits on the quarterback are illegal. Nobody wants to risk the penalty, so most quarterbacks are getting let off the hook. It makes you question how many quarterbacks playing in today’s game have the balls to withstand a pounding from Buddy Ryan’s “46 defense” that slaughtered offenses in 1985 en route to a Chicago Bears championship.

In the case of the three aforementioned quarterbacks, they are all very good quarterbacks by today’s standards. But their success proves my point. Kyle Orton has 20 touchdown passes to six interceptions this season and leads the NFL in passing yards. Orton is a good quarterback — not great. Statistically he is on top of the league in most passing categories for a Bronco team that will most likely be picking in the top-five of next April’s draft. In fact, Orton probably won’t make the AFC Pro-Bowl roster — unless he is an injury replacement — despite the fact that he is on pace to throw for over 4900 yards and post a 29:9 touchdown to interception ratio.

In 1995, those stats would have equated to an MVP. In 2010, four or five quarterbacks will probably top him, and as crazy as it sounds with those numbers, there will be plenty of people calling for Denver to replace Orton this off season.

Cassel is in a different situation. He leads a Chief team that is the surprise success story of the NFL and has positioned his squad atop the AFC West and in prime position for the post-season. Since week 6 of the NFL season, he has been arguably the best quarterback in football, throwing for 18 touchdowns in that seven-game stretch and only being intercepted once. On the season his numbers are very similar to Tom Brady’s.

Brady: 2703 yards, 23 TD, 4 INT, 66.3%

Cassel: 2307 yards, 22 TD, 4 INT, 60.4%

Before this season did anybody list Matt Cassel among their top quarterbacks in the game? No.

Bradford is the most glaring example of the trend. In 1984 Dan Marino had arguably the greatest season for a rookie quarterback ever, becoming the only rookie to start a Pro Bowl. Peyton Manning started every game in his 1998 rookie year and has 26 touchdown passes and 3700 yards — but he also tossed 28 picks. Recently, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan burst onto the scene with a great rookie season leading the Falcons to an 11-5 record in 2008.

All of these guys have initially grasped the position well, but perhaps none of them will be able to boast the numbers that Bradford will at year’s end. He’s completed over 60 percent of his passes with 2400 yards and 17 TDs. On his current pace he will end the year with a 25 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He will also end with over 3500 yards and over 600 attempts. Those are all numbers indicative of a ten-year veteran rather than a 23-year old rookie.

The important thing to gather from all this is that numbers do not tell the story. They never have. You can still turn on a television and watch a game with two different quarterbacks. Chances are you’ll be able to clearly tell which one is better, and chances are the two won’t differ much in their stat lines.

Swirling in the storm of inflated stats and shattered records, that genuine aspect still remains—the idea that a player is judged on the tangible effort that he leaves on the field. Pure ability, displayed between the white lines and not on a sheet of paper.

Amidst the chaos, it’s the only thing that can’t be quantified.

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Football ends season in heartbreaking fashion

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Monday, November 22nd, 2010, 5:56 pm

It was a fitting ending to a season of disappointment for the University of Maine football team Saturday afternoon on Senior Day. The Black Bears succumbed to James Madison University 14-10.

The Black Bears finish the season at 4-7 and 3-5 in Colonial Athletic Association play, while James Madison improved to 6-5 and 3-5 in CAA play.

Maine took possession of the ball with 3:49 remaining in the game, trailing James Madison 14-10. Needing to put together a 68-yard drive in the waning moments to win the game, they were only able to get 65 — sophomore tight end Jeff Falvey was tackled at the three-yard line as time expired.

The final drive that came up short was arguably Maine’s best all game. It spanned 16 plays and included three third-down conversions as well as a critical fourth-down conversion with 17 seconds left.

With a time-out remaining and the ball at the three-yard line it appeared that UMaine was going to bid farewell to the senior class with a dramatic last-second victory. Instead they ran the ball for no gain, called their last time-out, and ran a tight end screen play short of the goal line.

“I’m hurting on that one, I take full responsibility,” head coach Jack Cosgrove said about the final sequence.

It was an emotional loss on an emotional day for 12 seniors playing their final game. Offensive lineman Matt Barber; cornerback Steven Barker; offensive lineman Alex Batanian; linebacker Levi Ervin; defensive end Omar Jacobs; wide receiver Tyrell Jones; fullback Conor Keating; wide receiver Jeremy Kelley; linebacker Mark Masterson, linebacker Ryan McCrossan; defensive lineman Ryan Nani; and wide receiver Desmond Randall were all honored before the last home game of their careers.

At first, things were promising for the Black Bears. James Madison won the coin toss and elected for their defense to take the field first — a unit that surrendered only 15.2 points per game, good for second in the CAA.

UMaine countered this strategic move by the Dukes, embarking on an 11-play, 73-yard drive that ended with junior quarterback Warren Smith’s 4-yard touchdown plunge.

A fake punt highlighted the drive on fourth-and-two in which junior halfback Pushaun Brown scampered 19 yards, setting the Bears up with a first down inside James Madison territory.

After an impressive opening touchdown drive, the Black Bear defense matched their intensity. The first four drives of the game for James Madison resulted in a three-and-out, turnover on downs after just four plays, three-and-out and a punt. Unfortunately for UMaine they were plagued by offensive ineptitude as well after their initial scoring drive: two punts, and interception and a blocked field goal.

After an efficient yet unspectacular 10-play drive, sophomore kicker Brian Harvey’s 35-yard field goal attempt was blocked by the Dukes’ redshirt sophomore Chase Williams. Just before halftime the Dukes retained possession at the Maine 46-yard line with a short field.

The Dukes reached into their bag of tricks, with what looked like a jet-sweep to quarterback Dae-Quan Scott, but turned into the longest passing play of the game. Scott, who primarily played quarterback, lined up at wide receiver and came in motion. He took the handoff from senior quarterback Drew Dudzik and launched an arching spiral that found the open wide receiver Renard Robinson, putting the Dukes at the 13-yard line of the Black Bears.

Six plays later, James Madison found the end zone and tied the game at seven.

Despite the long connection, the passing game was relatively quiet for both teams. Dudzik and Scott combined to go 6-8 for 64 yards and an interception while Maine’s Smith completed 23 of 38 for 108 yards and an interception.

“It was difficult to throw the ball in that high wind today,” James Madison head coach Mickey Matthews said. “The ball really took off.”

To account for a lack of passing game, James Madison ran a heavy dose of senior running back Jamal Sullivan (19 carries, 61 yards) and used Scott’s unique athleticism (17 carries, 78 yards).

It was Scott who turned in the play of the game. On the fifth play of the opening drive of the second half, Scott ran outside to the right and broke the first tackle; following that was a spin move that made two defenders miss while creating a seam in the second level of the defense. He hit the seam, evaded one more tackler and 43 yards later, was in the end zone, giving James Madison a 14-7 advantage.

The play was the lone blemish on the day for an outstanding Black Bear defense, which surrendered only 204 yards of total offense and limiting the Dukes to only four of 11 on third down.

“We fit well, he’s a good player, he made a play,” said junior middle linebacker Donte Dennis, who, along with sophomore linebacker Troy Russell, had a game high 11 tackles on the afternoon.

“We just missed tackles [on that play]. It should have been a two yard gain, then a five yard gain, then a 12 yard gain,” Cosgrove said.

Maine’s ensuing drive was a strong response. Pushaun Brown carried UMaine inside the red zone with tough running, including a highlight reel 25-yard run.

The drive stalled at the 19-yard line but as Brian Harvey lined up to attempt a field goal, Maine was flagged for a false start. Instead of a 37-yarder, the attempt was from 42 yards, and Harvey pushed it wide left, contributing to Maine’s anemic 40 percent red zone scoring percentage on the day.

Nearing the end of the third quarter the turning point in the game occurred. Having already converted a third down on a Smith 16-yard scramble earlier in the possession, UMaine faced third-and-one near mid-field. Smith put a pass on the hands of junior halfback Derek Session, who was unable to corral it.

Forced to kick it away, junior punter Jordan Waxman’s punt was muffed on the other end by Scott. Initially, it appeared Maine recovered the fumble, but James Madison emerged from the pile with the ball.

“We made some big mistakes, [we] failed to capitalize on opportunities that could have changed the outcome of the game,” Cosgrove said.

After junior cornerback Jerron McMillian intercepted Scott, Maine was able to tack on a Brian Harvey field goal from 23 yards out and push the score to where it would remain, 14-10.

Perhaps the most important drive of the day from either side came after the field goal. James Madison began a drive at their own 41 line and ended at the Maine 32. Going into the wind, James Madison decided to go for it on fourth-and-nine rather than try a 42-yard field goal, but Scott was sacked by freshman defensive end Michael Cole.

The Dukes turned it back over on downs to the Black Bears, but not before running 10 plays and taking up 6:20 of the fourth quarter.

“We would have liked to get off the field sooner at the end,” Cosgrove said, referencing two big third down conversions by the Dukes that enabled more time to run off.

The turnover set up Maine for their final drive, which ended in heartbreak.

“It was just a two-minute drill; we had to go score a touchdown. I thought we made plays to extend the drive,” Smith said. “We have to finish to be a championship team.”

On this day it was James Madison who finished.

“I told our guys on that last drive that if we tackle we’ll win the game. We tackled poorly all game,” Matthews said.

After the game Smith acknowledged the work that needs to be done before the 2011 campaign.

“We are going to be a better team offensively next year. I promise you that,” he said.

“It’s a tough break and a tough way to end,” said Cosgrove. “The plan was for us to sing the Stein Song at mid-field when this one was over.”

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Be thankful for Turkey Day football

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Monday, November 22nd, 2010, 5:45 pm

Every third Thursday in November, we are reminded to give thanks and acknowledge what is truly important in our lives.

Fortunately, if we stray from our values, Thanksgiving is there to check us and make sure we have priorities in order. No holiday serves this purpose quite as well.

On Thursday, New England at Detroit kicks off the first football game at noon. Following that, New Orleans visits Dallas, and for the nightcap, the Jets host the Bengals.

As you grab your first plate and sit down to watch the first game, examine the two teams closely. The visiting team has been a perpetual winner for the past decade.

They have the best coach in the game and one of the best quarterbacks to boot. That tandem has yielded three Lombardi Trophies. Pats owner Robert Kraft is giving thanks on Thursday for that duo, no question.

The home team Lions have been the league’s worst franchise during that same stretch. Recent drafts have given them a glimmer of hope, but to no surprise that hope was killed in a Week 9 loss to the Jets when franchise quarterback Matt Stafford reinjured his shoulder. It still appears that the Lions are a long way from being a relevant force.

The dichotomy between these two teams serves as a reminder to just be thankful you aren’t “that guy.”

Though there is reason to envy Lions fans — if my team played every Thanksgiving, it would be lights-out. My message to you is this: Don’t take this blessing for granted. Thirty other fan bases would love the permanent Thanksgiving slot that Dallas and Detroit occupy.

The sandwich game between the Saints and Cowboys is a blatant reminder. If you are a football fan, just be thankful you don’t root for the Cowboys. If you are in fact a Cowboys fan, be thankful that Wade Phillips just got canned, but curb your enthusiasm, because Barry Switzer isn’t walking through that door.

For New Orleans, be thankful you got scheduled to play Dallas. That’s really all there is to it.

The night game is a recent addition to the Thanksgiving slate. Added a few years ago, the third and final game of the wonderful evening shows that there are people out there who actually do care. Good people do exist. For so many years we had two games to watch while we fed, but there was nothing to supplement the post-nap assault on the leftovers.

All that changed in 2006, when the NFL did the unthinkable and actually made Thanksgiving better than it already was. Now there are three games, so even if you pass out for the four o’clock kickoff, you can atone for that error with the Jets-Bengals game, which features two clubs going in the opposite direction.

The Jets can remember to give thanks to the Lions and Browns. In back-to-back weeks both squads took New York to overtime and both teams squandered golden opportunities to win the game. The second and third chances the Jets received in those games were enough to steal two victories that the Lions and Browns could stake a rightful claim to.

Cincinnati is a grim city these days. The Bengals entered the season with high hopes and have failed to live up to the expectations.

What is important to remember for the Bengals, though, is that this is not anything new. Be thankful you’re able to draw on past experiences to give you the strength and courage to persevere through these difficult times.

As you count your blessings and reunite with family this Thursday pause briefly (just make sure it isn’t while you are in line) and think of the important things in life. The things that matter.

Like football.

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Halladay reigns supreme in ‘year of the pitcher’

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Thursday, November 18th, 2010, 12:04 am

Everything that is good, just and righteous prevailed Tuesday when Roy Halladay won the Cy Young Award.

To no surprise — a perfect 32 first place votes — his masterful inaugural season in Philadelphia was crowned with the highest honor a pitcher can receive.

Too bad that’s all we could do for the guy. He will be the first to say a championship takes precedent over individual accolades. True enough, but even he should take time off from the presumably excruciating off-season regimen to soak this one in.

It was truly a remarkable campaign, as unanimous as the definition allows — Halladay was the best pitcher in a year bannered by excellence on the mound.

When the award was announced, I checked his numbers. Twenty-one wins at the end of the season, Halladay sputtered out of the gate by his standards to a 9-7 first half of the season. To atone, he finished 13-3, pushing him to 21-10 on the year.

Normally double-digit loss totals would be glaring, even if a pitcher racked up victories; with Halladay, it verifies his best asset as a pitcher. Even if he is struggling with command or trailing in games, he remains the team’s best option to record outs in the opponent’s lineup.

Every fifth day, the Phillies bullpen sleeps in an extra hour, doesn’t shower, slugs a six-pack and if it’s a night game, eats dessert, knowing “Doc” has this one. He was only one of two pitchers with 30 decisions in 2010 and quietly led the league with nine complete games and 250.2 innings pitched. He registered 219 strikeouts and notched a 2.44 ERA, but trumping both those stats is his walk total: 30 in 33 starts.

With the 17th pick in the 1995 draft, the Toronto Blue Jays selected the 18-year-old right-hander out of Denver. Three years later, in only his second start, Halladay foreshadowed the career he was destined for. In his second career start, Halladay pitched eight and two-thirds innings of no-hit baseball. With two outs in the ninth, he surrendered a solo home run, but the promising young starter retired the next batter and did what has become routine for him — notch a complete game victory.

The one-hit dandy was the type of pitching performance a young player can build his career upon; but like so many promising pitching prospects, Halladay’s flair fizzled in only his second full season. A 10.64 ERA in 13 starts in 2000 gave the Blue Jay front office no choice but to designate him for assignment to Single A ball. His assignment was to recreate himself as a pitcher — working on the technical aspects of the craft like keeping the ball down in the zone, getting ahead in counts, trusting his breaking ball and prioritizing the location of his pitches. All of these traits are present in a Roy Halladay-pitched game, and it’s what makes him so efficient and commanding.

His arrival year finally came in 2002. With a 19-7 record and an ERA below 3.0 (2.93), it was clear that whatever issues he brought with him to the minor leagues stayed there. The next season he topped that with a 22-7 record and his first career Cy Young. It was his first time — besides this year — in which his walk total was lower than the number of games he started — an accomplishment that merits the superlative “most impressive” amongst his wins, ERA, innings pitched and strikeouts any Hall of Fame resume would envy.

To beat Roy Halladay, you have to go to work and grind every pitch because of his refusal to give pitches away.

His tenure in Toronto was marked by a glaring lack of run support. The stat lines from his days there share a common similarity: low ERA and low win totals. Finally, as an apologetic reward for his services and their incompetence, the Blue Jays traded Halladay to a contender after the 2009 season.

The inevitable finally came in his first season in Philadelphia. In June the man known as “Doc” finally threw a perfect game. It seemed a foregone conclusion that the day would come.

The Phils reached the playoffs and for the first time since entering the majors, Halladay had the opportunity to experience what it was like to pitch in the post-season. Not shocking to anybody was that Halladay’s performance completely shadowed the toil of the moment. He threw a no-hitter — only the second one in playoff history.

When it comes to his success, Halladay’s consistency comes from his durability. Since 2002, his first season upon returning from the minors, he has made at least 30 starts in every season except two. A stretch of injuries spanning the 2004-05 seasons limited him to only 40 starts in those two seasons combined (still a very respectable 20 starts per year). Over the years, countless pitchers have burst on the scene and flamed out before we could even appreciate them. Recent examples are Dontrelle Willis and Mark Prior. Doing it year in and year out is what makes a Hall of Famer.

Not only is Halladay the best pitcher of the current generation, he will go down as one of the best of all time when he retires. At 33 years old, and with no nagging injuries to speak of, it can be said that his efficient style of pitching will yield six or seven more years of top-tier pitching from his right arm. Now that he is finally on a contending team, his career win total could possibly tease the 300 mark, a milestone some people say will never be reached again by any pitcher. But it doesn’t do him justice to look at the numbers. They aren’t what he is about.

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Auburn quarterback Heisman frontrunner

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Sunday, November 14th, 2010, 8:50 p

Auburn Quarterback Cam Newton looked like a man playing a child’s game against the University of Georgia on Saturday, a tough Southeastern Conference foe.

Physically dominating defenders with his six-foot-six-inches, 250-pound frame, and unique skill set, Newton ran for 150 yards and two touchdowns and made two throws late in the game that only a few quarterbacks in the country would be capable of.

His final line on the day was 12 of 15 passing for 148 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, along with the aforementioned ground numbers. His season totals: 2,038 yards, 21 touchdowns and 1,297 yards rushing with 17 touchdowns.

Despite the off-field distractions accusing Newton’s confidants of putting a price tag on the star quarterback’s matriculation, Newton continues to churn out Heisman performances each Saturday. As bad as it would be for him to win the award and have the allegations against him proven true, it would be worse to see him lose votes only to have been found innocent.

Heading into the “Iron Bowl” against Alabama next week, he is No. 1 in the Heisman race. The competition is as follows.

2. Kellen Moore, QB, Boise State

Moore is the epitome of what Boise State football is all about. He goes about his business with complete disregard for what pollsters and pundits have to say about it. His entire career has been brilliant, while his play hasn’t been particularly, and like the team he plays for, his numbers have not received the respect they deserve. Last year his ridiculous 39:3 touchdown to interception ratio didn’t earn him a Heisman invite and now this year people can no longer hide from his gaudy and efficient offensive numbers. You won’t find a quarterback in America who runs an offense better than Moore.

Last week: 19 of 26 for 216 yards and 3 TD’s

Season totals: 174-242, 2,588 yards, 24 TD, 4 INT

3. LaMichael James, RB, Oregon

The most explosive player on the most explosive offense in America deserves a seat at the Heisman Ceremony. The Ducks average 50 points-per-game and James is their sparkplug. He also leads the nation in rushing yards (1,422) and total touchdowns (18). His credentials would be more impressive if he were more present in the passing game but he has not caught many passes. By his standards he had an off week last week but he has dazzled all year. He possesses three 200-yard games and four 3-touchdown games.

Last week: 21 carries for 91 yards, 2 catches for 11 yards

Season totals: 225 carries, 1,422 yards, 17 TD, 10 catches, 149 yards, 1 TD

4. Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State

Blackmon is the dark horse in this year’s race. His season totals and production on a week-to-week basis are as good as any player, regardless of position, in college football. He has at least 125 yards and a touchdown in each game he’s played in this year. Wide receivers don’t usually garner Heisman attention the way quarterbacks and running backs do, which is why Blackmon hasn’t received much attention. Statistically speaking, he’s as impressive as they come.

Last week: 9 catches, 145 yards, 1 TD

Season: 84 catches, 1,430 yards, 16 TD, 4 rushes, 77 yards, TD

5. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan

Robinson and Newton have put together two of the best dual-threat quarterbacking seasons of all time this year. Robinson, as a quarterback, is second in the nation in rushing yards (1417). His passing totals don’t jump out but the fact that he does it all for Michigan has made his season special; he is Michigan’s offense. He’s beaten teams with both his arm and his legs, despite being the focal point of defensive game plans. Robinson didn’t wow last week. Since starting the race as the favorite earlier in the year, Robinson has cooled off slightly, but he’s been steady and productive all year while battling injuries that have attempted to derail his Heisman hopes. He isn’t going to win the award but he deserves to be on the list.

Last week: 13 of 21 for 176 yards, 1 TD 2 INT, 22 carries, 68 yards

Season: 131-207, 1,990 yards, 14 TD, 9 INT, 205 carries, 1,417 yards, 12 TD

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Bloated payroll doesn’t always equal MLB success

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Thursday, November 11th, 2010, 12:40 am

Cliff Lee is meeting with representatives of the New York Yankees this week to discuss his status as a free agent and to begin talks with a club expected to offer him a monster contract. It is no surprise that the Yanks are trying to court Lee, and if he signs, the cries that the Bronx Bombers “buy their team” will ensue.

There is a perception among baseball fans that teams like the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox and Phillies have so much money that other teams are put at a disadvantage when it comes to signing players and that is why those are the teams — save the Mets — that contend each year. The reality is that while those aforementioned teams frequent the October scene, having money to spend does not translate into championships.

Of the eight playoff teams this year, the team salaries, rounded to the nearest million, are as follows: 1. New York Yankees: $206 million; 4. Philadelphia Phillies: $142 million; 10. San Francisco Giants: $98 million; 11. Minnesota Twins: $98 million; 15. Atlanta Braves: $84 million; 19. Cincinnati Reds: $72 million; 21. Tampa Bay Rays: $72 million; 27. Texas Rangers: $55 million.

Texas, the team with the fourth-lowest total salary, beat the Yankees, the team with the highest payroll, in the playoffs this season and reached the World Series. High-spending organizations like the Red Sox, Cubs, Mets, Tigers and Angels were not even in the playoff picture in September.

Among small market teams to yield titles in recent years are the Florida Marlins, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the San Francisco Giants. Perhaps the biggest indicator of parity in the sport is the fact that nine different franchises have won championships in the past 10 seasons.

Admittedly, spending money on talented players in free agency will bring in better players and subsequently produce a better opportunity to win. That is logical. However, signing a player to an extensive contract and getting that player to perform to the expectations of that contract are completely unrelated. Not all teams seize that opportunity.

In fact, the only thing to consider when making the argument that a salary cap is needed in baseball is the amount of money paid by a team as a result of having to outbid another team. For instance, when the Yankees spent $189 million to lock up Derek Jeter for 10 years, it was not a purchase as he was already with the team. When the Phillies signed Ryan Howard to a $125 million deal, it was a contract extension given to a player that was acquired through player development not, free agency or trade.

The major argument against this is that without the money, those teams would not have been able to re-sign those players. This may be true in some cases, but in a situation like Jeter’s it was a foregone conclusion that he would be back in New York before signing his mega deal. The teams with money not only like to be active in free agency, they reward the players already on the roster who have earned it.

It is no secret that teams overpay during the winter months. It happens every year and this year Carl Crawford, Cliff Lee and Jayson Werth will receive big paydays. Those signings will give talking heads plenty to discuss until pitchers and catchers report in February.

The fundamental difference between baseball and other sports is when it comes to free agency, only a handful of teams spend big money. That is why when a Lee or Mark Teixeira becomes available, large market teams in New York, Boston and Los Angeles immediately become favorites to acquire their talents. The perception is that this leads to an uneven playing field. The reality is the 2010 postseason showed money and winning are not as closely related as some people may think.

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Auburn QB in hot water

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Thursday, November 11th, 2010, 12:38 am

Amid allegations that Auburn University quarterback Cam Newton sought upwards of $200,000 in exchange for his commitment to play, the complexion of the Heisman Trophy race has significantly been altered.

Newton has not been found in violation of any NCAA rules or regulations at this time. The allegations suggest a third party served as a broker between the Newton family, Mississippi State University and Auburn University while the two schools recruited the star quarterback late last year.

The intermediary between the schools and the family reportedly made it clear that in order for Cam Newton to commit, money would need to be paid. Although it would be incredibly bizarre if such specific and detailed allegations were found to have zero truth to them, Newton is currently innocent and eligible to play football.

New details have emerged about phone calls and lines of communication during Newton’s recruiting process, but often controversies like this take time to play themselves out. In all likelihood, an NCAA investigation will not be completed by the time the Heisman ballots must be submitted. If that is the case, Newton should expect an invite to New York in early December.

The star quarterback has amassed nearly 2,000 yards passing and exceeded 1,000 yards rushing to go along with 35 total touchdowns. His Auburn Tigers are undefeated and he is the clear-cut favorite to win the award but his campaign has suffered a serious setback as a result of this developing saga.

In September 2005 Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush forfeited his trophy after NCAA investigations revealed he received improper payments upwards of $300,000 while at the University of Southern California. Bush’s transgressions landed his alma mater on probation and left the university severing ties with Bush completely.

His picture was wiped out of the hallways lining the USC football facilities and his retired No. 5 jersey, which occupied the spot next to Matt Leinart’s giant No. 11 jersey, was vacated from the area behind the stands where six other Trojan greats are immortalized. The entire situation raised the awareness of amateur status in collegiate athletics and magnified the issue of integrity when voting on the Heisman.

Some people feel that the forfeiture of the award was a shakedown from the Heisman trust as a way to cleanse themselves of the scandal. Now, only a few months after Bush’s reprieve of the award, those who possess a Heisman Trophy vote are confronted with another issue of morality.

Bo Jackson has already stated he has waited a long time for an Auburn athlete to emerge as a Heisman candidate, and because of his loyalty and love for his alma mater, Newton will be receiving his vote this year. Of course, these comments were made before allegations surfaced, but will other Heisman voters be as willing to endorse a candidate that may carry some potential baggage? As the regular season of college football finalizes, the finalists for the award will crystallize. If Newton’s situation is not resolved by then, the Heisman committee will surely discuss how to handle it from their perspective. Another blemish, like the one Bush left, can be damning for an award, and also for a “fraternity” with so much pride and history. There is sure to be some external influence on the voting process.

Newton has a leg up on everybody else due to the fact that he has clearly been the most dominant player in college football this year. Unfortunately, that may not ensure him the right to strike the pose and join one of the most prestigious clubs in all of sports.

Instead, we may see Newton suffer, due in part to the actions that have led to the controversy that surrounds him, but also the precedent set in the Reggie Bush case.

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UMaine football struggles for consistency

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Sunday, November 7th, 2010, 11:14 pm

With a 39-24 loss to the University of Massachusetts last Saturday, the Black Bears’ football team fell 3-6, and locked in their 11th losing season in Jack Cosgrove’s 18-year tenure.

At best, this 2010 season will be a carbon copy of the 5-6 mark posted in last year’s campaign — two seasons perhaps best remembered by routs at the hands of Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.

The back-to-back losing seasons are two huge blows after a promising 8-5 run in 2008. The program has made attempts to reach the next level of play in the Football Championship Subdivision but all efforts have come up short.

The Black Bears got arguably the biggest win in school history against Mississippi State in 2004. It was otherwise an uneventful 9-7 regular season victory, but getting a road victory in a tough Southeastern Conference environment brought life and excitement to Black Bear football.

Following that win, Maine began a trend of scheduling Division 1 teams dipping into powerhouse Bowl Championship Series conferences such as the Big 12 to play Nebraska in ’05, the ACC to play Boston College in ’06, the Big East for University of Connecticut in ’07 and the Big-10 to play Iowa in ’08. There were even talks that the 2009 season would open up at Florida State.

Scheduling tougher opponents from better conferences is a strategic move by the athletic department. Wins in these games aren’t necessarily expected, but remaining competitive and the occasional win against major collegiate programs can go a long way for teams in Maine’s position. Unfortunately, since beating Mississippi State, the closest Maine has come to getting a big-time win was a 17-point loss to Syracuse last year.

The intent to raise the level of the football program seems to be there. Some wins, especially potentially high-profile wins, would be a nice supplement. In recent years though, the program has lacked consistency, been unable to generate any excitement within the university and most importantly, on the surface, appears to not have any sort of plan in place to indicate a drastic shift is imminent.

Nine games into his 18th season, Cosgrove’s record is 98-104 and his ratio of winning seasons to losing seasons is seven to 11. His tenure at Maine climaxed in the 2002 season, a year that ended in a quarterfinal playoff loss but saw the team reach as high as second in the national rankings and finish a respectable 11-3.

The most important aspect about that season was that it was the first time Cosgrove posted back-to-back winning seasons. But the most impressive aspect was that the previous year, the team went 9-3 and also reached the quarterfinals. Those combined seasons yielded a 20-6 record, and two deep playoff runs as well as a glow of optimism.

Building blocks finally appeared in place, but after the 11-win season in 2002 the team dropped five wins the next year, going 6-5. That marked the last time the Black Bears have posted back-to-back winning seasons and the playoff success hasn’t been replicated.

It is important to understand the limitations that are inevitable with a low-profile program. Despite a proud and rich history, the team is far from a headliner to UMaine. The lack of exposure can strain recruiting, but he has been able to field competitive teams. The program has not proven to be able to produce teams that are consistent winners. No scheme, no concept and no belief within the locker room has yet been able to translate into wins on a reliable basis.

The belief exists that Cosgrove could one day be the university’s athletic director. Given the amount of time and behind-the-curtains management that the job demands and the fact that Cosgrove has been able to sustain a Division 1 college football program for 18 years is a testament.

That type of tenure is a rarity at any level of sports these days, professional or college. Recent years have also seen Cosgrove’s list of former players playing in the NFL increase. He has coached and won more games than anybody in UMaine football history.

The first sentence of his biography on the university’s website, which reads “Jack Cosgrove is Maine Black Bear Football,” is untrue. Maine Black Bear football, when all the numbers are added up and facts stand alone, has been mediocre. Coach Cosgrove is not in any way mediocre. It doesn’t matter what the variable is that has led to more losses than wins, all that matters is that some sort of fundamental change is required if the university has any interest in the football program someday flourishing.

If Cosgrove’s next move is to become athletic director, it will ensure the relationship between UMaine and one of its most important athletic figures continues. It will also allow Cosgrove to oversee the football team he has nurtured for almost 20 years from a different position.

Maybe it’s time for both sides to take that next step.

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D.C. capitalizes on top overall pics

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Sunday, November 7th, 2010, 11:13 pm

The city of Washington D.C. has reason to believe that its sports future is bright. Three of the most exciting young athletes in sports currently reside in the District of Columbia, Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg, Wizards point guard John Wall and Capitals center Alexander Ovechkin.

The Nationals made Strasburg the first overall pick in the 2009 MLB Draft and it didn’t take him long to climb the minor league ranks. At just 21 years old, he made his National debut, and what a debut it was. Nationals Park, usually so empty that you pick your seat once you get inside, couldn’t fit another body inside on June 8 as he struck out 14 batters and got his first major league win.

Most importantly, it invigorated a baseball crowd that has been less than present since the Nats came to town in 2005. Season-ending Tommy John surgery cut his rookie season short, but Nationals fans and baseball fans in general hope to see Strasburg return next year. He is arguably the most exciting pitching prospect the game has ever seen and with the way the media works today he is definitely the most hyped.

Wall “dougied” his way to D.C. after also being selected as the first pick in the NBA draft. The exciting point guard from the University of Kentucky prompted D.C. fans to don shirts that read “WALL. GAMECHANGER.”

The Wizards were let down last year when their star guard Gilbert Arenas was suspended for the season for bringing a gun to the locker room. After his suspension, his relations were strained with the organization and people believe he is on his way out.

Wall is the reason that Arenas is expendable. The two would be exciting together, but if Arenas leaves town the Wizards will still have a franchise point guard. It is still incredibly early in his rookie year but he looks the part so far, averaging 19 points and nine assists through his first four games. At 20 years old, he should energize basketball in the capital for a long time.

The other number one overall selection that Washington has hit gold on is the best of the bunch. Alexander Ovechkin, taken first overall in 2004’s NHL Draft, has solidified himself as arguably the game’s best talent. Ovechkin is the only player in the history of the league to be named a First Team All Star in his first five years in the league. What Wall and Strasburg hope to become Alexander the Great already is. The Capitals have built their franchise around their star and have become perennial contenders in the Eastern Conference. Having just turned 25, Ovechkin will continue to build on his Hall of Fame credentials in the nation’s capital.

Perhaps no sports city in America has more young star power than Washington D.C. Three of the city’s four major sports franchises have hit the jackpot in recent years drafting big time players with the first overall pick. Perhaps this trend will prompt Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan to trade up in next year’s draft to take that franchise quarterback he so craves.

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Twitter, athletes should not mix

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010, 10:43 pm

Twitter continues to ruin professional sports. This little annoyance found a niche with pro athletes, and the media was quick to follow suit. Go figure.

Charlie Villanueva’s half-time tweet was the first major attack, and a victorious one it was. What ensued will be difficult to recover from. The following tweets areprinted just as they appeared on Twitter.

“In da locker room, snuck to post my twitt. We’re playing the Celtics, tie ball game at da half. Coach wants more toughness. I gotta step up.”

That’s what Villanueva’s Twitter account read on March 15, 2009. Never to be outdone, Shaq launched the second wave a few days later, tweeting, “Attention all twitterers I’m a tweet at halftime and not get fined like vill a new wave a whteva his name is.”

Suddenly we were granted access to the lives of most every collegiate and professional athlete.

I understand the hollow fascination with knowing how athletes are able to function off of the field. Think back to that time when you were 10 years old and you saw your third grade teacher out in public. Remember how weird that was? Like you couldn’t imagine them functioning as organisms without a cursive lesson to spew or a detention slip to distribute.

Why, then, were they carrying these groceries? It’s the same effect with athletes. Athletes and the games they play offer a mystique. Unfortunately, Twitter, among other things, has steadily chipped away at that mystique, and now it’s almost all gone.

I can live without the access to people’s personal lives — I don’t care if you are Chad Ochocinco or John Mayer or Snooki. The year 2010 feels more like “1984”. Maybe I’m not as welcoming to Twitter as others in the media are. Perhaps it’s too Orwellian for my liking, but at least I still had sports. They were untarnished. Too bad I have to speak in the past tense.

Six months after Villanueva’s vicious sneak attack, the NBA banned the use of Twitter during games. A month earlier the NFL did the same. I’m never an advocate for increased authority, but for the first time I was convinced there was a meaningful application for the tactic.

Then I went deeper in my mind and found truth; the necessity to implement a “Twitter Policy” exists in my once-sacred world of sports means the fight has been lost. Not David Stern, not Bud Selig, not even Roger Goodell — who is to American sports what Barack Obama is to American government — could prevent the total and imminent capture.

Ozzie Guillen, manager of the Chicago White Sox and a man who manufactures all-time classic quotes in monthly editions, was informed by management to keep a lid on his Twitter account. His response can be paraphrased in a brief excerpt: “That’s why the world is all screwed up. I want to say f— off but I can’t.”

I hear you, Oz. I’m with you, but think about it, you just did say “f— off,” right to a pompous self-absorbed microphone; that act of defiance will be transformed into ink and electromagnetic radio waves for everybody to see and hear first thing tomorrow anyway. You don’t need Twitter homey, you never did.

Perhaps I’m being ridiculous. Twitter is part of the highlight shows I watch, and the actual games themselves. Halftime reporters are twittering all over the place, it’s unavoidable. I know the fight is lost. And so from this day on I adopt a new philosophy. The philosophy of Mark Buehrle. When asked what he thought of his manager’s Twitter antics Buehrle offered this battle cry, for everybody like myself who still believes.

“I could give two s—- about it. I think this whole Facebook, Twitter, all this stuff is ridiculous, if you ask me.”

Apathy, not hate, is the opposite of love.

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NFL parity makes for an exciting eight weeks

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010, 10:45 pm

To best sum up the NFL season after the first eight weeks: there are more good teams than bad ones. Despite facing a potential lockout, the NFL is actually peaking as a league right now due to the level of parity that exists this season. Yet another reason why a lockout would be inexplicable at this point in the season is you can count 25 teams who have legitimate reasons to think they can make the playoffs.

The seven teams who have taken themselves out of contention are the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers. Even teams like the San Diego Chargers and the San Francisco 49ers, who have failed to live up to expectations, still have hopes to attain a division title.

Some people say the NFC West and AFC West are the two weakest divisions in football, but the same argument can be made that they are two of the more competitive ones as well. The Seahawks and Chiefs are the respective leaders, but Kansas City still has five divisional games to play and Seattle has three. The ’Niners and Bolts both took huge steps towards turning their season around Sunday. San Fran edged Denver at Wembley Stadium in London and San Diego knocked off a good Tennessee team.

For the Chargers, the win showed that despite a poor record, having talented players can translate to wins on any given Sunday, a truth that Minnesota and Dallas have yet to find. With four division games remaining for San Diego and five for San Francisco, both teams will somehow have the opportunity to position themselves for improbable playoff runs despite horrific starts.

In the AFC, the Wild Card race will consist of the majority of the conference. Two teams who miss out on winning the East will contend, as well as the three teams who get left out in the south.

The AFC South could be the toughest division to win this year in the conference. Indianapolis got a meaningful division win at home against Houston in what was a pivotal game for both teams. With that win, the Colts stand in first place at 5-2 and the Texans are third at 4-3. Between them is Tennessee at 5-3, having lost to the Chargers on Sunday. Jacksonville got a layup this week matching up against a Cowboy team who has been mysteriously easy to beat, improving their record to 4-4. Considering five wins is the high total for any team this year, all four teams have a chance to put themselves in position late in the year.

When looking at the AFC North, the Steelers and Ravens look like two of the NFL’s best; it is difficult to see a scenario where both of these teams aren’t playing in the postseason. If that’s the case, you could see as many as seven teams fighting for the sixth seed.

To go with the 49ers and Cowboys, the Vikings have made a case to be considered one of the most disappointing teams thus far. After Week 8 they stand at 2-5. Randy Moss has just been waived; his return to Minnesota lasted four games.

Brad Childress has dodged questions about his job security. Brett Favre is supplying the usual drama that Brett Favre does.

The team who was a Super Bowl pick a year ago has turned into a punch line, but that doesn’t mean they’re done. They are tied with Detroit for last place in the NFC, but unlike Detroit, you can’t count them out yet. A three-game stretch starting this Sunday will determine the rest of the season for this underachieving gang in purple.

The Vikes host Arizona this Sunday, travel to the Chicago Bears following the contest with the Cardinals and host the Green Bay Packers the following week. With a three-game win streak, Minnesota will have battled back to .500 while at the same time dealing losses to the two divisional foes who currently reside ahead of them in the NFC North.

It’s reached the point where the cliché “do or die” deserves application. It’s a roster that is ridiculously talented, but on Sundays they have to start winning.

The NFC South has seen Tampa Bay emerge along with Atlanta and New Orleans. Those three teams all stand within a game of each other and with four, five and three division games left respectively, the NFC South appears to be the most exciting to watch. Along with its AFC counterpart, it is the most wide-open division in the NFL.

If you are a fan of a certain NFL team, chances are you have a better chance of feeling optimistic than depressed about your team’s fate the rest of the way. It’s important in football to collect wins any way possible early in the year — because it’s necessary to play your best toward the end.

At this point, the difference between the NFL leader and the rest of “the pack” is no more than three wins. More and more teams are emphasizing player development and the results are being seen this year. The number of quality teams and lack of a dominating one in the National Football League has created the highest level of parity the sport has seen in the past decade.

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Home field the deciding factor in highly-competitive World Series

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Sunday, October 31st, 2010, 10:12 pm
Before this World Series began, the talk was about how the Giants play defense and pitch against a Ranger lineup that likes to swing the bats.

Through Saturday’s game San Francisco has outperformed Texas in that regard, but what has been the biggest factor after the first three games is the home field advantage.

By way of a 3-1 National League victory in this year’s All Star Game, San Francisco was awarded the privilege of hosting the first two games, four out of seven is necessary.

They took the advantage in Game 1 by chasing Rangers lefty ace Cliff Lee after just 4.2 innings and six earned runs eventually plating 11 runs in a game most expected to be low scoring. Surprisingly, the Giants bats continued to stay hot at home by blanking the Rangers 9-0 to take a two game advantage.

Giants ace Matt Cain continued to be dominant in the postseason with a gem in Game 2 but it was the offensive production that carried the Giants. The 20 runs they scored in the first two games of the series surpassed the total they scored in a six-game NLCS (19).

In their four total NLCS victories they only outscored the Phillies by six runs. In the division series against Atlanta they won three games by a combined total of three runs. Of the nine postseason victories the Giants have accumulated, six have been by one run, so it was refreshing for Giants fans to see some offensive explosion to take pressure off of a pitching staff that has been outstanding in October.

When the series shifted back to Texas, the Rangers continued their trend of controlling the pace of the game at home. For all of the praise that centerfielder Josh Hamilton has received this postseason, the best player for Texas in the 2010 postseason has been pitcher Colby Lewis. In four postseason starts he is 3-0 with a 1.71 ERA, only surrendering five earned runs.

What means the most is that his victories have been vital for his ball club. In the ALCS he tied the series for Texas with a Game 2 victory, and then went on to pitch eight strong innings of 1-run ball in a series-clinching Game 6 win. Saturday he was masterful again with 7.2 innings, giving up only two earned runs in a Game 3 win. His next start in this series will be late, most likely in Game 6 and he will once again have the chance to grab a crucial victory for his team.

If that happens, the man who spent the last two years playing pro baseball in Japan will be remembered forever in postseason lore.

After three games the Giants hold the advantage with a 2-1 lead. The series has been the opposite of what it was anticipated to be. San Francisco won two games by putting up a lot of runs and Texas won theirs with stellar pitching. The constant has been how both teams have played much better at home than on the road, a formula that makes for a long series.

This year’s fall classic, while it may lack a sexy team, has plenty of drama and excitement. The two teams match up well against one another, and their abilities to defend their turf to this point means it will be a lengthy campaign.

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Rangers’ offense will clinch Series

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Sunday, October 24th, 2010, 9:58 pm

Whoever called a Texas Rangers-San Francisco Giants World Series deserves congratulations. What appeared to be a certain rematch from last year’s World Series turned into one of the more surprising World Series matchups of recent memory. Let’s break down the series section by section.

Starting Pitching

The starting pitching will be great in this championship series. Tim Lincecum vs. Cliff Lee will be a can’t-miss pitching matchup. These two great left-handers are sure to turn in a classic. Beyond them, the rest of the rotations are comparable. San Francisco’s Matt Cain has not allowed a run this postseason, which makes the Giants 1-2 combo on pace with whoever Texas starts after Lee. That will either be C.J. Wilson or Colby Lewis, the latter of which looked outstanding in two ALCS starts against New York. After the ALCS, it should be Lewis.

Advantage: Even.

Bullpen

Any World Series matchup is sure to feature marquee bullpens. A good bullpen is a staple of a champion. After a massive collapse in Game 1 of the ALCS the Rangers’ bullpen looked like a liability. The rest of the series against New York, however, they were lights out. The Rangers’ pitching completely shut down the Yankees, 8th inning in game 1. Neftali Feliz has been what they need out of the closer spot, but he’s young and untested in this spotlight. San Francisco has starters that can go deep and get to closer Brian Wilson. Always a nice combination to have.

Advantage: Even.

Hitting

This is where the series will be decided. San Francisco is a team that got here on pitching and Texas is a team that has hit their way to this point. The Rangers’ lineup is clearly superior at the plate. They have players that get on base — Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, Michael Young — for the heart of their lineup that thrives on driving the ball deep — Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Vlad Guerrero. The Giants have received timely hitting when they’ve needed it this postseason, and beat a good pitching team in Philadelphia to get there. Centerfielder Cody Ross has carried them this postseason, hitting .324 with four HR. Beyond that they can’t match the quality and power of Texas.

Advantage: Rangers

Defense

To get this far on pitching, you must play good defense. San Francisco was tied for first in the league with a team fielding percentage of .988. They only committed 73 errors this year which was good for third in the MLB. Texas has gloves in the infield. Elvis Andrus is emerging at shortstop and Ian Kinsler has great range at second base. As a unit they aren’t what San Francisco has been this year.

Advantage: Giants

Prediction

The strength of the Giants pitching staff versus the Rangers explosive lineup is strength vs. strength but it will be interesting to follow how the other squads fare in this year’s fall classic. The better of the “weaker” units could decide the champ.

Texas does an excellent job of getting runners on base in any way possible. They are patient and move runners from base to base. They have players that can bunt, steal and hit into the gap. Two of the top pitching staffs in the American League — Tampa Bay and New York — already learned that this postseason. Now Texas faces their toughest test. This will be a pitching heavy series, mixed in with a couple of big innings from the Rangers.

Prediction: Texas in 6.

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Year of the pitcher continues through to MLB postseason

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Thursday, October 21st, 2010, 1:43 am
This baseball season was dubbed by many as the “Year of the Pitcher.”

Ubaldo Jimenez of the Colorado Rockies began the pitching festivities with a no-no on April 17th. That opened up a floodgate of stellar pitching performances that fans would be treated to in the upcoming summer.

On May 9th, unheralded Athletics pitcher Dallas Braden threw a perfect game against Tampa Bay. His performance in shutting down a young, explosive Ray offense surprised many, but what happened 20 days later didn’t come as much of a surprise to anybody.

In fact, baseball fans were waiting for the day to finally arrive when the most dominant pitcher of this generation to add a perfecto to his resume. That happened when Roy Halladay matched Braden’s performance with a perfect game of his own against the Marlins on May 29th. The first two months of the season saw three no hitters (two of them perfect games, only the 19th and 20th in MLB history) and the most impressive outing was yet to come.

Four days after Halladay spun his gem, Tigers youngster Armanda Galarraga’s now famous near-perfect game served as the climax for the season of the pitcher. There have been six no hitters this season including the post-season. A missed call with two outs in the ninth inning robbed Galarraga of the opportunity to place his name next to the 21st perfect game in MLB history, but regardless, it was the most impressive performance of the year.

Not only did he (unofficially) record a 28-out perfect game after retiring the very next batter after the controversial call, he did it in 88 pitches. That is an average of just over three pitches to each of the 28 batters he faced, a truly incredible statistic that shows just how dominant and rare his start on that day was. In comparison, Jimenez tossed 128 pitches in his no hitter, Braden was marvelously efficient with 109 in his and Halladay’s perfect game took only 115 pitches.

The dandy he twirled on that day will deservedly go down as one of the best single game pitching performances in the history of baseball. There were three no hitters leading up to June 2 when Galarraga should have had his, and three would follow. Of those six, none were as impressive as the one-hitter he threw on that day.

Tampa Bay would once again be victimized by a no-hitter on June 25th when Diamondbacks pitcher Edwin Jackson threw one of the more unconventional no hitters in recent memory. He labored through nine innings, walking eight Rays and taking a whopping 149 pitches to finish it off, the most ever in a no-hitter.

The fifth no-hitter was a redemption song by Tampa Bay pitcher Matt Garza. After being no-hit twice already earlier in the season, and three times in the last 12 months, the Rays wound up on the other end, and their ace joined the club by baffling the Detroit lineup. Garza faced the minimum 27 batters that game, marking the first time since 1991 that five no-hitters were thrown in a season.

What really made this year special was when October rolled around the gems kept flowing. On the opening night of the postseason, Roy Halladay threw another no-hitter against the Reds in the NLDS, making it the sixth and final one of the season thus far. Halladay has a couple more starts left this post-season so that number is subject to change.

Obviously what Halladay did in his first ever postseason start was incredible, but the next day Tim Lincecum turned in what some people think was a more dominant outing than Halladay’s a day earlier. Lincecum shut down the Braves, going the distance while striking out 14 and only allowing two hits. It positioned the Giants to advance to the NLCS and marked a fitting start to the two-time Cy Young winner’s postseason career.

Fast forward to the League Championship Series.’ In what was the pitching duel of the playoffs so far, the Rangers Cliff Lee overwhelmed the New York Yankees and outlasted Andy Pettitte. Lee went eight innings, giving up one walk and two hits, and completely befudded a Yankees lineup that usually crushes the baseball at home. Pettitte went seven innings giving up five hits. The two runs he surrendered came off of a first-inning two-run home run by Josh Hamilton.

After that he and Lee dealt back and forth, treating fans to the type of duel you only see in October. On Tuesday night Matt Cain of the Giants silenced an explosive Phillies lineup pitching seven innings of two-hit shut out ball.

In recent years, the home run ball has made headlines. The long-ball certainly draws a crowd and gets people excited. But for baseball purists, the 2010 season was special because of the way pitchers stole the spotlight back. It’s been fun to watch; thankfully it’s not over yet.

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LeBron’s egotistical ‘Decision’ misguided

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Wednesday, October 20th, 2010, 11:46 pm

LeBron James’ “The Decision” this summer is still generating attention. In a recent segment with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, James and his top gun Maverick Carter clarify the entire situation with a five minute feature.

Eventually, O’Brien asked if the criticism James received as egotistical and narcissistic had racial undertones.

“I think so, at times. There is always a race factor,” James said.

James’ actions during his free agency campaign this summer may have been a lot of things, but racially provocative was not one of them. He never said or did anything to provoke that question from O’Brien. No questions before led to her asking, and there were no follow up questions after James answered. It was completely out of place in the context of the interview which aired on one of the nation’s largest corporate media outlets.

The entire interview was soft and sensational, and a perfect opportunity for LeBron and his entourage to float some well-scripted quotes for people to print.

“For me to have the opportunity to give back to the boys and girls club of America, I would never change that,” LeBron said of the $3 million dollars of ad space that was sold and donated to charity during “The Decision.” “And if I have to take heat to give back to the kids, I would do it the same way every single time.”

Good, because we were worried that the $110 million you were about to sign for might not cover your need to “give back.” Maybe that $43 million you earned last year in salary and endorsements was tied up in other areas.

The true motives are cleared up later in the interview by Frank Sanchez, vice president of the Boys and Girls Club of America,

“A lot of people can take those opportunities and make it about them. [James’] goal was to make it about kids and giving opportunities to kids,” Sanchez said.

All of the right things are being said, but it isn’t hard to tell exactly what is going on here.

LeBron Inc., and Boys and Girls Club of America teamed up with another media giant just like they did in July and yet again executed a massive public relations ploy, using CNN as their catalyst the same way they did ESPN in July. When the negative attention mounted and became cause for concern, Team LeBron spun it and another mockery was made of the national media. O’Brien did nothing except sit and listen to James and Carter promote their product.

It’s easy to see how convenient it is for him to claim to be the victim in this situation. For the first time in his career he faced serious scrutiny from both the media and the public, and he was quick to say that race played a role.

Now that he has assumed the responsibility of being a role model for these children, he should be aware of the impact his words have. If his values were consistent with the Boys and Girls Club of America, he would not be making comments that perpetuate racial tension. When he inevitably joins forces with another mainstream media outlet, maybe he will silence himself from using inflammatory remarks for the sake of benefiting his own cause.

Do it for the kids, LeBron.

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Professional athletes can’t seem to figure out when to call it quits

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Sunday, October 17th, 2010, 8:31 pm
Nothing haunts an athlete more than the notion that their time on the field may be ending soon. The inevitable conclusion to a lifetime dedicated to perfecting a craft. It’s difficult to give up a source of so much joy.

There is also the post-retirement confrontation of the future, when the question “What do I do now?” manifests into a daily struggle for former athletes. It’s not easy to walk away from sports, and it’s even harder to perfect the art of going out on top

Going out on top. Retiring as the champ. Reaching the pinnacle of achievement. Having nothing else to prove. It’s the cliché that sports movies have milked dry, glorifying it so much that it seems too perfect. Because subconsciously “going out on top” represents what every athlete dreams of from the first time they pick up the ball. However when the opportunity presents itself, very few athletes have been able to decide when it’s time.

When athletes try and outlive the lifespan of their careers it can be a difficult thing to watch. Icons such as Johnny Unitas, Michael Jordan and even Babe Ruth all have played long enough to add a “twilight” chapter to their storied careers. Those powder-blue San Diego Charger uniforms of the 1970’s were on point, but seeing Unitas in anything except a Colts helmet is just awkward.

Babe Ruth was out of shape even by his own standards during his final stint with the Boston Braves in 1935. The realization that the body you’ve trained, conditioned and relied on for a lifetime will at some point betray you can be devastating.

There are far too many Joe Montana’s and Emmitt Smith‘s, but there is also a John Elway and Ray Bourque singing the swan song all the way to the Hall of Fame. After four failed attempts at a Super Bowl ring the fruits of Elway’s labor paid off in the form of back-to-back Lombardi Trophies. The scene seemed scripted: the old veteran QB emptying the tank after fourteen failed seasons. The lasting impression from the fifteenth is Broncos owner Pat Bowlen hoisting up the franchise’s first trophy and letting the stadium know that “this one’s for John.”

Every Bruin fan in the world had two favorite teams in 2001 when Bourque’s title quest culminated with the Colorado Avalanche. Although he wasn’t with the team he spent his first twenty years with, I still remember seeing his picture on the front page of the newspaper the next day. In his hands he held Lord Stanley’s Cup. For some, that image solicits tears to this day and as if it were scripted in a movie, two cities across the country simultaneously rejoiced for one man.

Deciding when it’s time might not coincide with being on top. Brett Favre’s final season in Green Bay was one of his best statistical seasons to that point in his career. He led the Packers to a 13-3 season and a first round bye. In his final game, his final pass was intercepted. The lone blemish on an otherwise spectacular season for both him and the team. Had he walked away at that point it would have seemed right. Sometimes failure in those situations is enough to admit that the ending to the story must come, and it isn’t always happy.

Retiring as the best has almost become nonexistent. The cliché has now been reversed. The scene of an athlete walking down the shadowed tunnel triumphantly one last time has been replaced by him sitting on the bench and looking up at the scoreboard in anguish, losing and in unfamiliar attire.

In today’s world of sports we are seeing an aged Favre struggle this season. He now faces allegations of potential sexual misconduct, and the media storm that is currently brewing won’t help his cause.

In Major League Baseball the New York Yankees’ “core four” of Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter have once again ascended to the top of the baseball world. As the four of them age rapidly, they too must soon answer the question.

A painter will always be able to paint. A singer can sing well into old age. A writer can write until he or she dies. But for athletes it is different. The physical ability leaves long before the desire to play no longer exists. It makes it tough to walk away, and athletes don’t like facing that sorrow. Which is understandable because it is denial that is the first stage of grief.

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MLB playoff matchups make for exciting October

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Wednesday, October 6th, 2010, 10:05 pm
The MLB postseason is here. As I’ve said before, no postseason in sports is quite like baseball’s. Let’s get after it and take a look at each divisional series.

Braves vs. Giants

The wild card-winning Braves will travel to San Francisco to take on the NL West champion Giants. Offensively, these teams are in similar situations. Neither team has a headline MVP candidate.

When you look at the numbers, there isn’t any difference between these offensive squads. In projecting the series, at least the Giants have the capability to produce. If catcher Brian McCann and right fielder Jason Heyward are unable to produce, the Braves lineup is useless. With both teams so evenly matched in the pitching department, a few home runs may make the difference in these games. The Braves lack that power threat. San Francisco’s offense has been average this year as well but they’ve got the advantage of playing at home to start.

Both of these clubs survived on pitching. The Braves will send Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson to begin this series. For San Fran, the three man rotation will be Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez, all boasting sub-3.50 ERAs. These teams were No. 2 and No. 3 in the league in bullpen ERA (San Francisco 2.99 and Atlanta 3.11). It appears that the Giants have a slight advantage from a pitching perspective. Their starters are not as experienced as Atlanta’s, but are equally capable of putting in good outings.

The bullpens are evenly matched. The Giants have the advantage in ERA, but Atlanta has a lower opponent’s batting average. While there won’t be a whole lot of offense, it should be fun to watch. Each pitch will be magnified because of how evenly matched the staff are. The difference in this series will be which offense can take advantage of mistakes by the opponent”s pitcher, although there won’t be many.

I don’t think Atlanta has a playoff caliber offense. The only advantage they have in this series is that it is Bobby Cox’s final year and sending him out on top can serve as an “X-factor.” Besides that, I think the Giants manage just enough runs and get by on superior pitching, both starting and in the pen, to advance.

Prediction: Giants in three

Reds vs. Phillies

This series looks to be the most exciting divisional matchup in either league. The Reds were one of the top offensive teams in baseball this season and the Phillies have also been known to rake themselves.

For Cincinnati, the production will come from leading MVP candidate  first baseman Joey Votto as well as outfielders Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs. Philadelphia will feature their usual list of sluggers: first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley and left fielder Jayson Werth. There should be plenty of runs in this series.

Some of those Philly sluggers, while still productive, didn’t put up their usual numbers. Utley struggled this season while battling injuries. At the plate, this series is a wash.

The starting rotation for the Phillies will be Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. Nobody the Reds put out there can match the veteran experience of that trifecta. Cincy will start out with Edinson Volquez against Roy Halladay, who makes the first postseason start of his Hall of Fame career. The advantage in starting pitching clearly lies with Philadelphia.

Relief pitching has been a constant concern for the Phils dating back to their 2008 championship season. This season their bullpen ranked in the bottom half of the NL in ERA (4.02). The Reds bullpen has one of the most exciting arms in the game in rookie Aroldis Chapman, a guy that can get a big strike out late in the game, but also a guy that lacks any substantial big league experience. The Reds bullpen gets the advantage here.

The Phillies have some intangibles working in their favor. To start, experience both from the players and the manager. They’ve been in this spot before and won. Another thing you can’t underestimate is Roy Halladay’s desire. Halladay is arguably the greatest pitcher in the past 25 years but he’s never had a chance to pitch in the playoffs. He wants it. If the Reds are going to win games it is because they got to the Phillies bullpen. Without that it will be tough against this well-balanced team.

Prediction: Philadelphia in five

Yankees vs. Twins

It seems like these two teams meet up in the post season every year. This will be the fourth time in eight years this divisional matchup has taken place, and the Yankees have won the previous three convincingly. The defending champs will sit A.J. Burnett and go with C.C. Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes as their 3-man rotation. For the Twins, it will be Francisco Liriano in Game 1, followed by Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing. Liriano won comeback player of the year, and Pavano had a career resurgence of his own.

For New York, Pettitte is only a few starts removed from a lengthy DL stint and Hughes was inconsistent in the second half of the season. While the Yankees’ experience has the potential to prevail, there are question marks with their starters. Minnesota does not have that problem. The Twins bullpen is deeper than New York’s although both groups were in the top three in the American League this year. The slight pitching advantage rests with the Twins.

The Yankees will once again start superstars at virtually every position, making their lineup as tough a post season lineup as there is in baseball. The production has slipped, though. Of their nine regulars, only second baseman Robinson Cano hit above .300. Shortstop Derek Jeter, first baseman Mark Teixeira and third baseman Alex Rodriguez all saw production slip this year. Luckily for New York, left fielder Curtis Granderson has provided a supplement to Cano’s production after the All-Star break this year. Despite a dip in numbers, this lineup still warrants respect. They work counts and any player can go off at anytime.

On the other side, the Twins will be without first baseman Justin Morneau in the middle of their lineup. Not only will his production be missed, but his absence will affect the way the Yankees pitchers attack the Twins hitters. Catcher Joe Mauer and Morneau is a dangerous combination, having just Mauer could spell trouble for Minnesota.

The pitching is fairly evenly matched. The Yankees have the best starter in C.C. Sabathia but the Twins have more depth. This series will be well-pitched and will come down to who can produce more offense. The Twins just can’t match New York’s bats.

Prediction: Yankees in four

Rangers vs. Rays

This is perhaps the most even matchup in the opening round. Game 1 will have already been played by the time this is printed, but the matchup in that contest is a must watch. Cy Young candidate David Price of Tampa Bay takes on last year’s post-season phenom Cliff Lee. In the past three years, Lee has established himself as one of the dominant pitchers in the game. He throws strikes and dictates the pace of the game. He is a nightmare for opposing hitters

Texas will send C.J. Wilson out in Game 2 to take on struggling James Shields. Shields was 13-15 this year with an ERA above five. Filling out the rotations are Matt Garza for Tampa Bay and Colby Lewis for Texas. These bullpens are number one and two in the American League. In fact, the top four bullpens ERA-wise in the AL belong to the playoff teams. That is no coincidence. Championship caliber teams need to be able to pitch late in games. For this series, the pitching is a wash.

Like the bullpens in the AL, the teams who scored the most runs with runners in scoring position are the four playoff clubs. In October the ability to plate runners in scoring position is key. There are fewer opportunities with the higher level of pitching. Tampa Bay is number two in this category and Texas is tied for third. This stat could be the difference in this series. Whichever team is able to produce “timely hitting” will most likely win this series.

The Rangers offense has been one of the most consistent all year. They hit for power and can handle situational hitting. With outfielders Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero, the task will not be an easy one for the Rays pitchers. The rest of their lineup compliments their sluggers well by getting on base and scoring runs.

I like Tampa Bay’s offense as well. They have plenty of talented hitters that deliver in big spots for them, and as odd as it sounds they are an experienced post-season lineup. The Rangers depth is too much though. The advantage at the plate goes to Texas.

The pitching staffs for both teams are elite. The offenses are elite. Everything about this matchup says it will be a great series. Texas has been outstanding all year long, but they’ve never won a playoff series in team history. This is the year that finally ends. Prediction: Rangers in five

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Cowboys dine for $55k on rookie

Spending plays into athletic stereotypes

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Wednesday, September 29th, 2010, 11:07 pm

I’ve never been one to critique a professional athlete’s salary or spending habits. They are the backbone of a multi-billion dollar industry, and their salaries in relation to the amount of money they help generate are actually quite modest.

But every so often a story comes along that makes even the staunchest defender of the cause throw their arms in the air and surrender. Sometimes there is simply no argument to be made. Such is the case with the most recent Dez Bryant rookie initiation story.

Bryant, the highly touted rookie wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, refused to carry fellow wide receiver Roy Williams’ pads after practice early in the preseason. The carrying of the pads is a long-standing tradition in the NFL for rookies. Actually, if that’s all you’re asked to do by the veteran players, you’re getting off the hook. Whether or not Williams was trying to stick it to the guy that will eventually take his job has never been determined; but when Bryant refused to comply, Williams vowed he would get the rookie.

Good job Roy.

One day after the Cowboys got their first victory of the season Bryant was made to take the entire offensive unit out to dinner. Dallas has some pretty big boys on their team, especially on the offensive line, so Dez Bryant had to know going in that the tab would probably be paid with plastic not cash.

When all the food and drinks were enveloped, the final tally was $54,896. Certainly no “college night” at Margaritas prices.

There is nothing tangible to show for the Cowboys’ night on the town that could have paid for my entire college tuition. There are a lot of meaningful and productive ways to apply $55,000 to something. Renovating a school or hospital. Providing people with shelter. You don’t need me to put this in perspective for you. What could you do with $55,000 dollars?

I’ve never had any problem with athletes purchasing nice cars and houses because however excessive they may be perceived to be, they are still a necessity. I can’t tell Dez Bryant what to do with his money. Nor can I tell Roy Williams that he shouldn’t exploit a young kid with a lot of money. But I will make this point. After signing his rookie contract he received $8.3 million of guaranteed money. If I received $8 million I would be making some absolutely horrible purchases. And having a pretty good grasp on my peers, I can comfortably speak on behalf of the majority of people my age when I say that at this stage in my life I’m in no way prepared to handle that sum of money. What does this teach the kid about the value of money?

If Bryant succeeds in the NFL his next contract will probably be in the range of $40 million to $50 million guaranteed, so he will be getting plenty of scrilla. But if a young man who is still maturing is out spending one-twentieth of a million dollars in a few hours on dinner, he is more inclined to follow the paths of Lenny Dykstra or Lawrence Taylor.

The Cowboys players who, according to an espn.com article, were purchasing $9000 bottles of wine aren’t going to complain, but to the common man this whole situation feels dirty.  When a 21-year old who did not graduate college can spend the amount of money that some parents work their whole lives for in order to send their children to college, you know there is a serious flaw in the wealth distribution of this country.

I understand the concept of free enterprise, but I don’t think it’s asking too much for athletes to apply some awareness as they live out the American dream.  If it all backfires for Bryant, he will have a hard time finding sympathizers after Monday night. And this is coming from somebody who supports athlete’s salaries. There just comes a point where irresponsibility supplants enjoying oneself. Dez Bryant and Roy Williams reached that point. Next time Dez, just carry the pads.

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American League MVP comes down to wire

Hamilton, Cano lead pack worthy of league’s highest honor

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Wednesday, September 29th, 2010, 11:10 pm
The American League MVP race is down to three legitimate candidates.

If you follow the rule that the MVP should be on a playoff team, then Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano and Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton are your guys. If you think it should go to a player with monster numbers, it’s Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera. Also garnering votes if you don’t necessarily believe the guy needs to play on a playoff contender would be Red Sox third baseman Adrian Beltre.

Cano has been the best player by far for the Yankees this season. You could even make the argument he is now their best player hands down. He is the only starter hitting over .300 at .316 and he’s added 28 home runs and 106 RBI. He’s scored 100 runs and ranks in the top 10 in every major offensive category.

Cano has come through in numerous clutch moments for New York this season and can produce anywhere in the lineup. In a Yankees roster that looked beat up and at times old this season, Cano provided the consistency to sustain them through the year. No player was more of an asset to their team.

Cabrera has the best numbers across the board of any player in the AL this season. He leads the league in RBIs (126), runs (111) and on-base percentage (.420). He ranks second in the league in slugging, homeruns (38) and OPS. His worst offensive rank is his .328 batting average, which is third in the AL.

The bad news for pitchers is he’s only 27 years old; this guy keeps getting better at the plate each year. He is now a perennial force and will be in this discussion for years to come. He needs the Tigers to be relevant, though, to get votes.

Beltre may be the best offseason acquisition last winter. After a disappointing five year stint in Seattle, Boston was able to acquire Beltre on clearance. He responded by having the second best year of his career. He can be found in the top 10 in each major offensive category. His line reads .325/28/102.

Also, with games remaining on the schedule, Beltre needs only 11 more hits to reach 200. Boston has been absolutely decimated by injuries this season but Beltre’s been their rock, playing in 152 games.

If anybody except Hamilton wins the award this year it will be an upset. With a .361 average, 31 homers and 97 RBI (and counting), his offensive numbers are there. The most impressive ones, however, are his league leading .635 slugging percentage and a .414 on-base percentage, good for second in the AL.

What Hamilton accomplished this summer is what won him the award. During the core part of the season Hamilton was the most consistent and productive player in the American League. His .418 batting average in July was a drop-off from the previous month in which he hit .454. After insane production during the summer grind, August finally caught up to him and his batting average dropped 62 points down to .356. It’s his to lose.

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Goodell needs to avoid lockout to sustain image

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Sunday, September 26th, 2010, 10:21 pm

Since taking over as commissioner of the NFL in 2006, Roger Goodell has made the league’s image one of his top priorities.

The savvy Goodell realized that the success of his product is dependant on the public’s perception of it. If the NFL and its employees make the news for being arrested or violating drug policy it reflects badly on The Shield (the NFL’s logo). Therefore, goodell needed to eliminate this type of attention. If the game is made to be a family friendly than the league will appeal to a wider fan base and will succeed. The formula is quite simple, and one year after taking the job Goodell implemented the NFL Personal Conduct Policy.

Many high-profile players have been suspended in Goodell’s crusade against negative publicity. Initially the suspensions came in greater numbers as players were still getting used to the fact that they couldn’t get away with the sort of behavior that Goodell’s predecessor Paul Tagliabue tolerated.

Now his conduct policy is a few years old and players are less likely to create a controversy off the field having seen what the consequences will be (evidenced by a slight decrease in suspensions over the past year).

Still an uncertainty exists in the NFL right now that jeopardizes the league’s image and carries the potential to create irreversible damage to the league’s popularity. I’m speaking of the ongoing labor disputes between the owners and the players union.

In short, the lack of a new collective bargaining agreement has the league in limbo. The owners are attempting to keep a larger portion of the profits, which in the player’s eyes amounts to an 18 percent pay cut.

The whole situation seems microcosmic of Western society: there are billionaire owners arguing with millionaire players over dollars and cents. Situations like this provide the type of ammunition that critics of professional sports thrive on.

“It’s all about the money,” and “they only care about getting paid” are often heard by those who find themselves defending the pro games.

The NFL is now approaching the same fate suffered by the NBA and NHL in recent years. There is a large distinction that makes the NFL’s case unique though. Before the NHL and NBA locked out, the leagues were struggling to gain popularity. The lockout served as a period to make things right, and both saw an increase in fan involvement and success upon returning.

For the NFL, the game is as popular as ever. A lockout at this point would be the absolute worst scenario from a business perspective. It risks alienating and permanently losing some of the most loyal fans in sports.

It appears there will be no pro football next season. The major ramification that is a year without football equates to a year of lost revenue. Owners feel like this is their bargaining chip because they have the money to stay afloat amid a work stoppage and the players would be forced to cave in when they realized that they need the cash.

If this sounds completely ridiculous, it is. And this decadent dispute between the two sides has become the greatest possible threat to the image that Goodell has worked tirelessly to repair. The onus lies primarily on the owners and players union to reach an agreement but ultimately the NFL is Goodell’s responsibility.

Roger Goodell’s tenure as commission will be defined primarily by the image of the league when he leaves. This is the way he wants it. Thus far he’s done a good job, but it’s been pretty easy on him. Now his job becomes challenging. All of the suspensions he’s distributed in the name of integrity will mean nothing if he can’t find a solution to the ongoing labor disputes. The league will suffer. And by his own standards he will have failed.

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Rockies SS Tulowitzki deserves NL MVP nod

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Sunday, September 26th, 2010, 10:22 pm

Troy Tulowitzki is having one of the best single-month performances in recent years. His power numbers for the month of September are incredible. With a little under a week still left, the Rockies shortstop has homered 15 times and drove in 40 runs.

Those numbers are absolutely ridiculous. He needs only four more to set the record for RBI in the month of September and it couldn’t come at a better time for the Rockies.

As of Sunday, the Rockies trail Atlanta and San Francisco in the wild card race by 3.5 games. Saturday night, Tulowitzki went 4-5 with a home run, 5 RBIs, and the game winning double in a must win game over the Giants. The reason Colorado is in contention for a playoff spot is due largely in part to the 10-game win streak they assembled earlier in the month. Perhaps no player is more vital to his team’s success than “Tulo.”

The Most Valuable Player (MVP) award is seldom handed out to the player who is actually of the most value to his team. Instead it is more like the Most Productive Player on a Championship Contending Team. If the award were true to its name, the 2010 MVP would be difficult to give to anybody other than Tulowitzki.

Despite missing extensive time this season, he is batting .324 while nearing 30 homers (27) and 100 RBI, the usual benchmark for offensive production in order to be considered. His slugging and on-base percentages are both in the top 10 and he plays defense as well as any shortstop in the game.

I don’t expect him to win the MVP award this year, as it will probably go to struggling Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto. The Rockies aren’t at the forefront of the playoff picture like Cincinnati is so that will lose Tulowitzki votes. Nonetheless his play at the end of this season deserves recognition.

Without him, the Rockies are nowhere near contending for the playoffs. He’s always been a productive player since entering the league but the September he’s having this year is garnering the national attention he’s always deserved. Colorado sits 3.5 games out of a playoff spot right now.

Perhaps they will play the type of baseball that was on display during their 10-game win streak. Conversely, this late season push could just be a tease. The final results will be tallied in a few weeks. Either way, you can bet that Troy Tulowitzki will have something to do with how things shake out.

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Philadelphia correct to name Vick starting QB

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010, 10:00 pm

Michael Vick’s new promotion to starting quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles is sure to create discussion.

There will inevitably be those who believe Vick’s second chance at an NFL career is undeserved — that he should still be in prison, or at the very least unable to collect a salary that exceeds $5 million for the 2010 calendar year. But from a pure football standpoint, this move says a lot of things about the current state of the NFL.

For starters, the move is about starters. Andy Reid and the Eagles were convinced Kevin Kolb was a quarterback the team could win with, as evidenced by trading one of the franchise’s greatest players in Donovan McNabb.

For the duration of the offseason, Kolb was anointed the starter in Philadelphia and fantasy owners were anxious to see if his production in Reid’s system could equal or surpass McNabb’s.

There seemed to be a perception around the NFL, or at least around the media outlets that discuss the NFL, that the unproven Kolb would have no problem justifying the job he’d been given. This happens too often, though. We, as fans, are usually caught believing the hype.

This has nothing to do with Kolb’s chances at success, but we see it all the time. A coach has to make a tough decision regarding his quarterback and he knows there will certainly be consequences if the guy he chooses flakes out. Therefore the coach goes on a miniature PR campaign promoting his choice.

In today’s game, getting the right guy behind center is an inexact science. Getting it right sometimes happens on the second or third try. In Carolina, Matt Moore has been benched in favor of rookie Jimmy Clausen after being touted as the Panthers starter during the long offseason months. The fact is unless you are an established player, the backup quarterback is only a few bad throws away from the starting lineup.

It’s important to understand that Kolb lost his job, however temporarily it may be, because of injury. Actually, this might be Reid’s built-in excuse because the reason Vick got to play in the first place was because of a concussion to Kolb.

In Kolb’s situation, Reid could be taking precautionary measures with his quarterback of the future so not to cause permanent damage. This actually works out well for Reid because even if that isn’t the truth, it at least shields Kolb from having to answer questions about when he will reclaim his spot. As long as that concussion is part of the discussion, the media, his teammates and the fans will give him a free pass.

Concussions are the elephant in the room for the country’s most popular sport. People want to overlook the obvious danger of football because of what the game gives us. When you bring head injuries into the discussion, there is an implied “take all the time you need” clause that does not exist with other common football injuries.

Eventually, Kolb will be starting for Philadelphia. But for the moment Vick is certainly the Eagles’ best choice to win games. Say what you want about the man, but he has changed. He says all the right things to lead one to believe he is a different person. “This is Kevin’s team,” he told reporters after winning his first start since 2006 on Sunday. His unselfish and unassuming attitude has won him favor in Philly.

Since I don’t know the guy, I can’t say for sure if what he’s saying is genuine. But I can judge what he does on the field and say with confidence that he has certainly matured as a player.

A pre-reformed Vick was always looking for a running alley rather than a passing lane when he dropped back. Now he sits in the pocket, makes reads and goes through his progression. His accuracy is impressive and he looks like an NFL passer now. He’s done and said all the right things to make you feel OK about rooting for the guy despite his troubled past. Now, he has a honeymoon period in the City of Brotherly Love while the former starter literally gets his head right.

There’s an old saying in football that the backup quarterback is the most popular guy in town. Vick knows that.

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Fans deserve acclaim for team loyalty

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Sunday, September 19th, 2010, 8:17 pm

It’s a question every die hard asks: Are fans actually part of the team? Does the fan base deserve to lay some sort of claim to the franchise of which they support?

The casual sports fan may not be inclined to answer yes to those questions. The arguments are always the same. Fans are not employed by the team and fans don’t play or coach; therefore a person has no right using phrases such as “us” and “we” and “them” in regards to their favorite team.

The truth could not be further away.

When you stick by one team through wins and losses, playoff seasons and 1-15 seasons, you’ve earned the right to use whatever pronoun you so choose.

Fans make the game exciting. Imagine watching a college football game between two bitter rivals, or a rink gushing with bodies in the seats for a Stanley Cup showdown.

Now picture that same game, but without people watching in person. Imagine a goalie standing on his head, denying shot after shot on a power play, in dead silence. Those who watched the classic Rose Bowl between the University of Southern California and The University of Texas several years ago understand. The fans were literally on the sidelines. Vince Young had to jump over them as his momentum carried him out of the field of play after scoring the game-winning touchdown. Where did the camera cut? The sea of burnt orange that was in a frenzy because their Longhorns won the national title.

Players and coaches will be the first to tell you that fans have an impact on the game. One of the most common sights when a team is gaining momentum is to see a player stand up on the bench, arms motioning upwards for the crowd to make noise. If it’s a big third down situation and the home team is on defense, the head coach almost relies on the fans to create a loud, hostile environment for the opposing team.

In basketball, when the visiting team is shooting free throws, anything goes. The energy created from the crowd inevitably makes its way onto the field of play. Call me spiritual, but I have a tendency to think the energy I send from my couch reaches the guys each time they lineup for a big play.

The beauty in sport is in the passion that comes with it. There have been countless Sunday afternoons where I sit motionless, completely empty after a heartbreaking loss, Too stunned to even attack the straggling slices of pizza that have gone unclaimed since halftime. And as I sit there, dejected, I’ve watched backup players who will never see the field slapping hands and joking with friends from the other team. In those moments nobody can tell me that those player take the loss harder than I do. Those guys will collect their weekly check, and eventually get released after the season and move onto the next team.

Yet they are considered a part of that team, and because of that I cheer for them. As long as we are wearing the same colors, we are in it together.

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The game must go on

Sports continue through tragic events, can be ‘lasting memory’ for involved

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Sunday, September 19th, 2010, 8:18 pm

When autumn arrives, priorities take a back seat to football. However, once in a while, a humbling experience makes us rethink what truly matters in life.

The sport usually gives you something to feel happy about, but this past week it brought about a different emotion. In Foxboro last Sunday a man was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead after collapsing of a heart attack at Gillette Stadium. He took his six-year old son to see his first professional game.

This past Friday, minutes after celebrating his second touchdown pass of the night, a Texas high-school quarterback suddenly collapsed and was rushed to the hospital where he, too, was pronounced dead. In the case of the high school quarterback, the team was notified of his death before the game even ended.

After that pass he had to be hoping his defense could get the ball back for him so he could keep up the hot hand.

That opportunity never came, and for the six-year old kid the day at the stadium turned into the lasting memory he will have of his father. These occurrences, thankfully, are a rarity. But they are real and real people are affected. As people who only read about these things all we can offer is an appreciation — an appreciation for the lives lost, and our own.

Having played football, one of the sayings that coaches love to use is that football is a microcosm of life. That has never been more true than it was this past week. For the kid who lost a dad and the teammates who lost a friend, life continues, as did the games.

If you still have the privilege of playing the sport you love, take time out this week to show your appreciation for the people you love who have stuck by you since you were little. You never know when that chance will no longer be available. And next time you get out there, play like it’s the last time you’ll ever have.

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Unheralded QB leads Michigan

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Wednesday, September 15th, 2010, 9:00 pm

For someone who had to earn the starting job, Denard Robinson is doing well in his role as Michigan’s starting quarterback. His first two games of the season have been historic. In week one, he passed for 186 yards and rushed for 197. A week later those numbers were 244 and 258 respectively. It appears coach Rich Rodriguez has found the quarterback for his offensive scheme.

Much like Pat White, Rodriguez’s former quarterback at West Virginia, Robinson does not have ideal size for the position at only six feet tall. However, his athleticism and dual-threat ability make him the perfect fit for the spread offense the Wolverines run. Robinson’s emergence alleviates a huge burden for Rodriguez.

Since his highly touted arrival in Ann Arbor, Rodriguez has been heavily scrutinized. He left West Virginia amid allegations of NCAA rule violations and those issues followed him to his new job. In May, the Michigan program was placed on probation for violating NCAA regulations.

All of this is not new to the world of college football and this kind of thing is usually overlooked as long as the club is winning. This was not the case with Rodriguez in his first two seasons as head coach, as the team’s record was a horrendous 8-16. There were serious doubts about whether or not his spread offense would work at a school known for its old-fashioned style of football.

For the time being, Robinson has made everybody forget about the negative publicity the program has received with those two monster performances he has produced to start the year.

In college football, unlike the NFL, one player has the ability to take over and win a game. One player can have such a talent advantage that he can literally hijack a game and do as he pleases. Vince Young did this a few times in his career, as did Barry Sanders, Charles Woodson and countless others.

The quarterback is so important in Rodriguez’s system because a great one will have the opportunity to take over the game and be that player on the field who stands out above the rest. Robinson is proof of that: he’s thrown the ball 62 times in two games and ran 57 times. When you consider that a good offensive team will get 65-70 plays per game it is outstanding that he has been able to thrive despite teams knowing the ball will be in his hands.

We must curb the enthusiasm, though. Every year we see a player explode out of the gates as a Heisman front runner only to receive a reality check as the season goes on. Maybe this will happen to Robinson, maybe it won’t. Rodriguez certainly hopes it continues, because he has hitched his wagon to the young man’s arm and legs. After constant scrutiny in his first two and a half years, he can breathe easy.

But, the coach knows he has to keep loading up his roster with recruits. He has seen how far one guy can take his program.

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Baseball playoffs the best in sports

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Wednesday, September 15th, 2010, 9:08 pm

October is almost here. The most exclusive tournament in professional sports is about to begin. Playoff baseball offers an exclusiveness that other sports can’t match. Each postseason is guaranteed to yield moments that truly make you appreciate the game. They are the type of moments that seem to come straight from a movie.

For instance, Joe Carter’s homerun that won Game six and clinched the World Series victory in 1993 would make Ray Hobbs tip his hat. In more recent years, memorable moments included Aaron Boone’s walk-off home run in Game seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series to send the Yankees to the World Series at the expense of their most hated rival and the collapse of the Yankees after a 3-0 series lead the following season, this time giving Boston the pennant and allowing them to win their first world championship in 86 years.

These moments cannot be duplicated or replaced. Each year the legends of October welcome new members. Not all go down in glory. October has given us names that we associate with years of hardship and failure, names like Bill Buckner and Steve Bartman. October makes you forget about the player’s salaries and the steroids. Red Sox fans understand how much October means, as do the people in Philadelphia, a city that lacked a professional sports title since the 1970s until its Phillies won two years ago.

Chicago is an empassioned sports city, so I can imagine what it was like when its White Sox finally ended a title-less era infamously tarnished with the 1919 Black Sox Scandal — the fixing of World Series games. Baseball has literally redeemed these cities in recent years.

Each year the incumbent seems to enter the arena, along with some familiar foes some fresh faces. Cincinnati and Texas represent that fresh meat this year. The Reds haven’t been relevant for quite some time now. Having them back in the playoffs with a legitimate shot to win the pennant is great for the game. Texas is eager to win. In the history of their franchise they have never won a playoff series. The Rangers come into this postseason with a built-for-October lineup.

The ratings in this area are sure to be down this year, and I get it. Having lived in Maine my entire life I understand the nature of the Boston sports fan. That is neither a compliment nor insult, it simply is. A decrease in ratings in this region must mean an increase somewhere else in the country, however. One in and one out, like the Bear Brew Pub on Thursday nights.

Somewhere in the country a new fan base is preparing for the tournament and a team shoulders the load of an entire city. However unlikely one’s chances may seem in the beginning, the end is never a surprise. Any team can win. When the difference exists only in a few games throughout a 162-game season, the “best” team becomes a matter of preference rather than fact. It is a completely different season.

Blowouts are a rarity. The blurry line that exists throughout the regular season is sharpened and the difference between winning and losing can be seen in a single throw, or a call to the bullpen. It’s when the fans watching can tell you the exact moment in the game when they knew their team’s fate; an intuition that usually comes long before the ninth inning. Each error is magnified. Each intricacy of the game is perfected.

The demand for such a high level of play transcends the game into an art. That argument might be difficult to make every other month of the year, but not in October.

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Packers, Saints to stand out in lackluster NFC

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Sunday, September 12th, 2010, 10:58 pm
While the AFC has a definitive hierarchy, the NFC does not have a clear cut favorite.

The conference does not have as many Super Bowl contenders as the AFC, but Green Bay, Minnesota, New Orleans, and Dallas are as good as any team in the NFL. All four of those teams will score points in bunches and feature top-notch quarterbacks. Defensively, Green Bay is the best of the bunch. The Packers have been stocking up on a lot of young talent the past few years and this season that payoff will come.

Third-year starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers is off to the best statistical start to a career that any quarterback not named Dan Marino has ever had. The accuracy and anticipation he shows on his throws make Green Bay’s passing attack nearly impossible to defend.

On the other side of the ball, a stout defense features cornerback Charles Woodson, the reigning defensive player of the year. This team is well rounded and has talent at all 22 positions, which is why they are the Super Bowl pick in the NFC.

NFC East

This is the toughest division, top to bottom, in the NFC. All four teams in this division have playoff aspirations. The biggest storyline from the NFC East is the trade of Donovan McNabb within the division, from Philadelphia to Washington. McNabb can still play at a high level and the decision to for the Eagles to trade him to a team they play twice a year doesn’t make much sense.

The Eagles are in a transition phase with Kevin Kolb taking over at quarterback. Matt Schaub, Philip Rivers, and Aaron Rodgers are all quarterbacks who have turned into top-notch starters after sitting the bench for at least two years. Philadelphia hopes that their new signal caller can be the next one to join that group.

The Giants are hoping to rebound after a disappointing season last year. However, they are a veteran team and are built to contend for one of the six playoff spots. Dallas is the team that has an edge on the rest of this division. They’re loaded with talent and their roster doesn’t have any holes. The Boys are expected to win this division and they should.

NFC South

The reigning Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints headline this division. A repeat will be a tough task, especially with an improved Atlanta Falcons team. The Saints started off right with a hard-fought 14-9 opening night win over the Vikings. What was most impressive about the Saints in the opener was their defense.

Usually the Saints will score more than 14, so it had to be comforting to head coach Sean Payton knowing that the offense doesn’t have to win a shootout each week. They’re an elite team and once again a contender.

Atlanta is a sleeper team. Signing cornerback Dunta Robinson at cornerback was one of the more underrated acquisitions any team made last offseason. Quarterback Matt Ryan will look to take that next step going into this third year as a starter. Atlanta is a well-coached, tough football team and they are going to be in the playoffs.

Carolina and Tampa Bay will struggle. Carolina will play teams tough because of the way they run the ball and Tampa was stingy last season, but both teams lack the firepower on offense to keep up with the other two teams.

NFC North

A division known for its “run first, play good defense reputation” is now loaded up with gun-slinging quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre are two of the game’s very best. Jay Cutler, for all of the interceptions he throws, racks up a lot of yards and in Detroit Matt Stafford has become the NFL’s golden boy. These teams pin their hopes on quarterbacks.

Minnesota and Green Bay are the two playoff teams from the North. Chicago will struggle to find consistency on a week-to-week basis and Detroit is a few years away from being legitimate. The Packers will win this division and win the whole NFC, but Minnesota won’t be far behind.

I didn’t want to mention the dreaded F-word in this article, but Vikings fans were relieved when their 40-year-old quarterback decided to come back for another year. Indianapolis may be the only other team in the league that depends on their quarterback as much as Minnesota does. The window of opportunity for the Vikings to win a title is closing, but remains open for at least one more year. The NFC North will yield two playoff teams.

NFC West

This is by far the worst division in football. San Francisco may be the only team guaranteed a playoff spot before the season even begins. For them to not win this division would be a monumental failure; partly due to the fact that they have the easiest road to the playoffs and partly due to the fact that they are actually a really impressive looking team now.

The concern with this team has to be the running game. Frank Gore is one of the best backs in the league but they are very thin at the position so if he goes down they could be in trouble. Linebacker Patrick Willis leads one of the most underrated defensive squads in the NFL.

Seattle has turned over almost their entire roster, including their coach, so this year will be one of rebuilding. St. Louis is still rebuilding and won’t win many games, but they are on the right path. The past two drafts have been productive for them. Two years ago they locked up franchise left tackle Jason Smith with the second overall pick in the draft and this year they grabbed Sam Bradford number one overall to be the quarterback of the future. It will be a few years until they are good again, but they have done a nice job putting the pieces in place.

Arizona lost their starting quarterback, a starting wide receiver, starting middle linebacker, and a starting cornerback. There is no way those losses aren’t felt. The Cardinals take a step back this year after making the playoffs the past two years. San Francisco has this division locked down.

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AFC East contenders plentiful; Ravens, Colts best in conference

By Lucas Thomas
Posted on Wednesday, September 8th, 2010, 9:38 pm
September is by far the most wonderful time of the year. Football has returned. If you go out Friday night, be sure to wake up at noon Saturday in time to catch the end of “College Gameday” and whatever college football games might follow. Then, top it off with a plateful of NFL on Sunday. When you consider the amount of football you get in a fall weekend in America, it’s foolish that we get to do it on Monday Night, too. Here’s a preview of the mighty AFC, with special emphasis on the Eastern division.
AFC East

The New England Patriots come off a solid 2009 season, a year in which they won the division, and they once again should compete for that title. They took some hits on defense with defensive end Ty Warren and cornerback Leigh Bodden being placed on injured reserve for the season. They also let go of defensive end Derrick Burgess and lost former University of Maine standout safety Brandon McGowan for the season due to injury. The biggest hole is in the defensive front seven, where the Patriots will struggle to find a consistent pass rush. Quarterback Tom Brady’s efficiency will still put up plenty of points. New England isn’t the 2007 team their fans so desperately long to see again, but they are a well-rounded squad. Bill Belichick will coach his guys better than anybody else in the league and they will certainly be in contention for the division crown.

Miami is a team who could surprise people this year. They have all of the pieces in place and at this point it is up to the players to perform. The Dolphins execute their game plan and play physical football. The addition of Brandon Marshall improves an underrated receiving corps, which features one of the best slot receivers in the league in Davone Bess. The running game will still be the focus, featuring the tandem of Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown. The big question mark with the Dolphins is the production they will receive from third year quarterback Chad Henne. But with world-class left tackle Jake Long protecting him, Henne could hold up and be the game manager they need. This team can either be really good if their young players can take the next step, or struggle mightily if Henne and the defense fail to improve on last year.

The Jets are going to suffer from the HBO “Hard Knocks” factor. To explain it quickly, the “Hard Knocks” factor is Super Bowl hype resulting from the show, which results in diminished performance during the season. Throw in a charming young quarterback and a head coach with an unrelenting appetite for self-promotion (and Big N’ Tasty value meals) and you have the recipe for unwarranted hype in our nation’s sports media. They are a talented team with a great defense and have the pieces in place to make a run. The major concern with this team is with their quarterback. Second-year starter Mark Sanchez, for all the media attention he receives, was a liability last year. In fact, with a veteran quarterback last year, the Jets could have easily been a 12-win team. It’s clear the quarterback position is the biggest question for the Jets. If Sanchez is able to make the jump, then they are Super Bowl contenders. If not, they will be watching from the sidelines.

Buffalo will struggle this year. Their quarterback situation is shaky and they lack weapons in the passing game. Lee Evans is a stud, but teams will focus on taking him out of the game. The running game could be a strength for the Bills, with rookie CJ Spiller lighting a fire under vets Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson. Even with a solid defense, the Bills offense still needs more work, or else they’re looking at a top-five pick next year.

The rest of the AFC

The AFC is loaded this year. The East and North have three teams that are legitimately playoff contenders. As always, the South is dominated by Indianapolis who will once again be a Super Bowl favorite. The West is the weak link of the conference. San Diego is the class of the division, but the holdouts of prominent stars like Marcus McNeil and Vincent Jackson could narrow the gap between them and teams like Denver and Oakland. The Raiders could surprise people. They play good defense and finally have competence at the quarterback position. Jason Campbell isn’t a stud quarterback, but he is certainly one of the 32 best options at the position. They also benefit from the division they play in, which could mean collecting a few extra wins.

Baltimore has improved greatly from last year when they were ousted in the divisional round. The additions of Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh provide balance to the offense, taking them from good to potentially elite. Ray Rice is an explosive back, and is going to command a lot of attention. Joe Flacco has the luxury of playing behind a great offensive line, and now he has two All-Pro caliber wide receivers to throw to. Defense has always been this team’s signature, and as long as Ray Lewis is in the lineup that won’t stop. If you want to search for a weakness, you can find it in the secondary, but that might be nit-picking. This team just looks like they are built for a late season push.

Don’t ignore how deep this conference is. The majority of teams will still be playing meaningful games in December. This will be another season of AFC dominance. Of the 16 teams, 12 have a shot at the postseason, with the Colts and Ravens ahead of the pack.

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