Friday, February 11, 2011

The jury's still out on defending champ Lakers

       Sometimes teams are so gifted that they tend to develop a light switch mindset. One moment they’re on. The next moment they’re off. This has been the essence of the Los Angeles Lakers this season.
       Coach Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant won’t admit this, but the two-time NBA champions are in a precarious position. On-again/off-again may work during the regular season. In the playoffs, it’s the guarantee for an early exit. Maybe in the back of their collective minds, the Lakers realize this and understand the need to play better against the league’s top teams.
       The Lakers delivered a message in last night’s 92-86 road win over the Boston Celtics. This victory was significant. Prior to last night, the Lakers were 1-6 in games played against the NBA’s elite teams. Over the past few weeks, reporters have repeatedly raised questions about the team’s inability to beat any of pro basketball’s big boys.
        What a national television audience saw last night was a Lakers team that seemed to have regained its focus and competitive drive. Kobe “the Closer” came through in the final quarter the way he normally does. Even so, the Lakers cannot continue to win championships with Kobe embracing the role of super-hero.
       The presence and productivity of 7-footer Anthony Bynum in the middle makes the Lakers a much different team, especially on defense. With Bynum in the game, Pau Gasol can move to power forward, his natural position. There are lingering concerns about Bynum. He’s been injury-prone and there are questions about his intensity. Bynum’s inconsistency has limited his effectiveness and led to the rumors about him being put on the trading block in the not-too-distant future.
        In all fairness to the Celtics, they did not play at their usual level against the Lakers. Right now, they’re short-handed because of injuries. The lack of depth shows most noticeably on the front line with the absence of the O’Neal’s, Coquille and Germaine. As long as the Celtics are healthy at the start of the postseason, there’s nobody in the East who can beat them in a seven-game series.
As for the Lakers, don’t count them out. What’s been missing with them this season is the overall consistency from the past two seasons. It’s going to be awfully difficult for this team to win a third straight title. Between now and the end of the regular season., the Lakers won’t win enough games to catch the front-running San Antonio Spurs in the NBA West, or Boston or Miami in the NBA East. As a result, they won’t have home-court advantage in the conference finals or the NBA Finals (assuming they get that far).
Then again, maybe the Lakers will be more motivated since they’re viewed as under-dogs when facing teams with better records. It won’t be long before we see how this all plays out.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Allen's on target to eclispe Miller's mark for 3s

       Tonight should be the night for Ray Allen.
       The stage is set for the Boston Celtics sharpshooter to become the NBA’s career leader in 3-point shots made. Aside from Allen being on the verge of overtaking Reggie Miller (2,560) on the all-time list, there’s a little spice to add to the mix.
       Not only will Allen get the opportunity to make history in front of a home crowd at TD Garden, he gets the chance to establish a new 3-point standard against Boston’s despised rival – the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers.
       That’s not all, though. Miller, who is now a television broadcaster, will be at courtside to call the game for the TNT network. Tip time is
       Allen (No. 2 on the career list with 2,559) needs only two 3s to surpass Miller.
       The soon-to-be crowned king of downtown shooting is more than likely to own the record by the end of tonight’s game. But that’s not a guarantee. The Celtics excel because of their share-the-ball mindset. And besides, Allen isn’t the type to force the issue. He gets his shots within the flow of Boston’s offensive sets.
       At some point, the record will belong to Allen, who is 35. For the Celtics, winning – especially against the Lakers – always takes precedence. They won’t sacrifice victory for the sake of a record. Even so, the odds favor Allen for tying or breaking Miller’s record tonight.
       He’s scored two or more 3-pointers in 36 of the Celtics’ 51 games this season. During that stretch, there have been just five games in which he failed to convert at least one 3-pointer. If Miller’s mark doesn’t fall tonight, basketball junkies will be forced to wait a few more days when the Miami Heat visits the Celtics on Sunday.
       Clearly, it’s just a matter of when Allen will deliver the record-breaking 3.The question that begs for an answer is this: Who will get the assist?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Newton's media-driven workout could backfire

       Cam Newton has staged a media event for Thursday which is designed to demonstrate how much he’s progressed in his quest to become an NFL-ready quarterback. The timing and stated purpose of this is a bit curious to me.
       Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner and top gun for national champion Auburn, could have opted to put his wares on display at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis two weeks from now. It’s a good bet that he’ll be a no-show in Indy. Cam could’ve chosen to play in the two all-star games (East-West Shrine and Senior Bowl) that pro draft hopefuls typically compete in so that pro coaches can better assess the capabilities to play at the next level. Cam turned those down also.
       Instead, he’ll put on a pre-Combine workout at a high school in San Diego, Calif. Newton has been working with noted quarterback coach George Whitfield, whose name recognition escalated a few months back when he tutored Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger during his four-game suspension at the start of the NFL season last September.
       The idea is for Newton to show how far he’s come in adjusting his game from operating in a spread formation to running a pro-style offense. I realize how gifted Newton is. But spending a few weeks with a noted QB trainer isn’t likely to produce dramatic changes in footwork and technique in such a short period of time.
       Maybe the thinking is that with enough visible improvement, Newton will greatly enhance his draft position. Right now, he’s projected by most pundits as the likely tenth pick in the first round, which belongs to the Washington Redskins.
        It’s not unusual for top draft prospects to skip the Combine. The scouts will get their time to make their assessments of Cam after the Combine is over. Typically, there are individual workouts and also there’s pro day when the scouts visit Auburn.
       What I find most intriguing is that this workout is for media eyes only. The public is not invited. Pro scouts can’t attend because they are required by NFL mandates to wait until the Combine. According to one NFL insider, this workout could easily be perceived as an attempt by Team Newton to upstage the Combine.
       What’s the point? The implication here is that in some manner, the media, if it gives Cam glowing reviews, might somehow sway the perception of pro scouts before they can even take a look-see for themselves. If that turns out to be the case, Cam Newton might have more people rooting against him than for him.
       That would be a shame.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How much will Vick improve? Only time will tell

       Michael Vick still has much game left in him. The only question now is how much will he improve?
       Time will tell.
       This past season, Vick finally played up to his considerable potential – as a pro quarterback – for the first time in his career. That’s a scary thought, especially when you look back at his time with the Atlanta Falcons. In those days, he had a run-first mentality which thrilled fans everywhere, but it also severely hampered his growth as a top-flight passer. And yet, in spite of that, Vick was the catalyst for a strong playoff run, which ended when the Falcons lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2005 NFC championship game.
       These days there’s a new Michael Vick. He’s more interested in finding an open receiver. Running has become more of a second option in his arsenal.
       After doing prison time for his involvement in an illegal dog fighting ring, Vick made the most of his second chance and emerged as the marquee player for the Eagles in 2010. Thanks to Vick’s resurgence, Philadelphia thrived and won the NFL’s East Division. Vick’s handiwork didn’t go unnoticed as evidenced by him being voted NFL Comeback Player of the Year and his selection to the Pro Bowl. Also keep in mind that had it not been for Patriots QB Tom Brady, Vick would have been the league MVP.
       There are two areas that Vick needs to work on – maximizing patience and minimizing recklessness.
        If he improves in these areas, he could be close to unstoppable regardless of how good the opposing defense is. To do so, however, he'll need to make some adjustments. Below are a couple of examples from this past season of his shortcomings. That's not a bad thing, these are issues which are correctable.

  • Packers/Eagles in NFC playoffs: Vick had the Eagles in position to beat the Packers in the closing minutes. He admitted to being greedy and went for the home run throw, which turned out to be a game-ending interception in the end zone. Since it was a first down play, there was no need to risk a pick. Then too, had the pass been thrown in a location where only his guy could get it, that would have been even better.
  • Eagles/Redskins (regular season): Vick is nimble, Vick is quick, but he’s not a bulldozing fullback. He found this out the hard way on a scramble when he got sandwich-tackled and suffered injured ribs, which caused him to be sidelined for several games. This never should’ve happened. The NFL provides a luxury for Vick and his QB contemporaries. League rules allow quarterbacks to slide feet-first so that defenders cannot lay a hit on them. Had Vick gone into a slide, he gets his yards, avoids punishment, and he stays healthy. 
       For what it’s worth, here’s my message to Michael Vick.
       You’re too valuable a commodity to stand around on the sidelines.  When the time comes for you to jet out of the pocket, pretend you’re Rickey Henderson running the bases. Be prepared to slide when you’ve gone as far as you can go. You know as well as anybody that your offensive line must do a better job of protecting you. And of course, everybody knows that you still have the giddy-up to run a 4.2 or 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash. That doesn’t make you Superman.
       All quarterbacks need protection. You are no exception.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The case for Packers defense as Super Bowl Co-MVP

       The voting for MVP of Super Bowl XLV did not totally reflect what actually happened in the game. In my view, there’s an obvious missing link.
       You’ll get no argument from me that Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers deserved the award. It’s my contention that the MVP honor should rightfully be shared – in name – with the group that ultimately decided the final outcome – the Packers defense.
       Rodgers did a number on Pittsburgh’s secondary, passing for over 300 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-25 win. At times, he was all but flawless. Truth be known, the Packers should have beaten the Steelers by at least ten points. Rodgers’ receivers came oh so close to betraying him. Six dropped passes, one of which was a sure touchdown, made life far more difficult for the eventual champs than it needed to be.
       If you’re willing to forget about obvious offensive bias for a few minutes, allow me to present my case. Defense is the reason why Green Bay strolled out of Cowboys Stadium with the Lombardi Trophy. It was the defense that forced the Steelers to commit three turnovers, all of which led to Packers touchdowns, including a 37-yard interception return by Nick Collins. Those three mistakes proved to be the critical difference.
       That’s not a knock on the Packers offense. Rogers & Co. seized the moment by putting points on the board after the Steelers turned the ball over. At the same, though, that’s what you would expect from any championship-caliber offense.
       The case for the defense is further bolstered by what transpired in the fourth quarter. The Steelers were coming on strong, the momentum clearly in their favor. Their trademark bullish ground game was starting to take charge. Suddenly, the game changed. Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall took a handoff and was greeted by Clay Matthews and Ryan Pickett. Matthews’ head slammed into Mendenhall’s side and the ball popped out. Desmond Bishop picked up the bobble to give the Packers possession near midfield. Eight plays later, Rodgers connected with Greg Jennings on an 8-yard scoring toss to put Green Bay up 28-17.
       The Steelers bounced back as is their custom. Roethlisberger threw a scoring pass to Mike Wallace and Antwaan Randle El took an option pitch to score the two-point conversion. Leading 28-25, Green Bay was not in a position where it could milk the clock and not score any more points. Rodgers converted a crucial third-and-long to Jennings. The 31-yard completion kept the drive alive and led to Mason Crosby’s field goal.
        With two minutes left to play in the game, it’s mandatory that Green Bay’s defense deliver. Otherwise, Rodgers would suffer the same fate as Kurt Warner in the Super Bowl played two years ago. In that game, Warner guided Arizona on what should’ve been the winning touchdown drive. Instead, the Cardinals defense stumbled and the Steelers won it in the closing seconds on Big Ben’s touchdown throw to Santonio Holmes.
       Things turned out differently this time. Pittsburgh’s drive started out in promising fashion. Roethlisberger completed his first two passes, but he failed to connect on his remaining attempts. On fourth-and-five, Green Bay’s defense put a padlock on the game. Wallace was momentarily open, but cornerback Tramon Williams closed quickly to swat the ball away and prevent a first down.
       The performance of the Packers “d” is even more remarkable because Charles Woodson was on the sidelines in street clothes for the entire second half with a broken collarbone. Woodson, a future Hall of Famer, is widely acknowledges as one of the top defensive backs to ever play the game. That’s just one more reason why the Packers defense is worthy of a standing ovation.
       And Super Bowl MVP honors too.


Friday, February 4, 2011

Pressure Changes the Game

       Pressure can cause a pipe to burst.
       That statement applies to all quarterbacks. Joe Montana, John Elway and Brett Favre are widely acknowledged as masters of the game. But even they were never immune to the intense pressure of a fierce pass rush. It’s no different for those legends-in-the-making such as Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.
       It’s one thing for a passer to have three, four, five seconds to find an open receiver. Yet, it’s a vastly different story when the protection breaks down.
       Pressure changes the game.
       Pressure, especially if it’s a game-long constant, has a cumulative effect. The end result is a shrinking comfort zone for the quarterback. When that zone shrinks, productivity tends to diminish. This has a lot to do with human nature. No quarterback likes to get hit.
        When the Steelers and Packers go at it for a Super Bowl title on Sunday, pressure on the quarterback – or the lack of it – could go a long way in determining the outcome. Both teams have the personnel to bring the heat in a variety of ways that could make it difficult for either offense to put a lot of points on the board. That’s not a guarantee, though. When Green Bay and Pittsburgh played in ’09, both were stellar on defense, but they ended up surrendering a combined total of 73 points.
       There’s enough evidence to validate the value of pressure and its impact. Here’s a sampling:
·        Giants-Patriots/Super Bowl XLII: Michael Strahan and crew beat up on Brady from start to finish. And it showed. New England was driving for the game-clinching touchdown. With the ball inside the Giants’ 10, Brady takes a short drop and fires a bullet to a wide-open Randy Moss on a down and out route near the goal line on the left side. Because Brady was getting tattooed so frequently, he threw quickly to avoid the rush, but the ball was badly overthrown. That’s was highly uncharacteristic for an accurate passer like Brady. The Patriots eventually scored to take the lead, but Giants answered with the winning touchdown in the closing minutes.
·        Packers-Bears/NFC championship: Aaron Rodgers carved up Chicago’s pass defense like a Christmas turkey in the first half. Green Bay had all the momentum in its favor until midway through the second half. Julius Pepper sacked Rodgers and nearly delivered a KO punch in the process. A woozy Rodgers dusted himself off, but was never the same for the rest of the day. Had it not been for the defense, it’s questionable if the Packers would even be in Dallas playing for the Lombardi Trophy.
·        Steelers/AFC playoffs: Roethlisberger managed to do just enough to offset the relentless defensive pressure in successive playoff wins against the Ravens and Jets. Big Ben delivered on the game-winning drive to help his team beat Baltimore and advance to the conference championship final. We’ll never know what would’ve happened if Ravens wide-out Anquan Boldin had not dropped a sure touchdown pass in the decisive fourth quarter. Against the Jets, Roethlisberger was held in check in the second half after Pittsburgh built  a comfortable lead. The Steelers didn’t score at all and the Jets made a game of it. The Steelers goal-line defense helped preserve the win. Still, you can’t help but wonder if things turn out differently if Justin Keller corrals a very catchable scoring pass. A touchdown at that point in the game would’ve put the Jets within striking distance of the lead with plenty time left to play in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh put the game away for good when Big Ben converted a crucial third-down pass. The Steelers maintained possession and ran the clock out.

       Considering the caliber of Sunday’s quarterbacks and the personalities of the defenses as it relates to pressure, I give the Steelers an ever-so slight edge. It’s strictly because of Roethlisberger.
       Rodgers has proven to be superb so far, but he’s also been concussion-prone. Hopefully, the new helmet he’s been issued will save him a few headaches as it did after the big lick administered by Peppers two weeks ago. Of the two QBs, he’s definitely more likely to be KOed, and Pittsburgh is certainly capable of bringing that to pass.
       Big Ben, on the other hand, isn’t superhuman. He can be harassed and hammered, but he tends to keep on standing. I don’t recall Roethlisberger ever being knocked out of a game. There’s only one example I can think of when he wasn’t able to regroup fairly quickly. A few years back, he was involved in a motorcycle accident. The impact of the crash caused him to flip from his bike onto the windshield of an oncoming car. Aside from incurring a long slash in the back of his head, Roethlisberger suffered fractures of his nose and jaw. Remember too that when this happened, he was not wearing a protective helmet.
      That definitely won’t be case on Sunday. That doesn’t mean the Steelers are a lock to win either.


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Faulk, 'Prime Time' are the only clear-cut favs for Canton

The Pro Football Hall of Fame announces its Class of 2011 on Saturday. As always, speculation abounds as to who will make the cut and who won’t. Two sure-fire picks to be inducted in their first year of eligibility are Marshall Faulk and Deion Sanders.
Faulk, who played with the Colts and the Rams (1994-2005), is arguably the most versatile running back to ever play the game. A do-it-all type, not only did Faulk run with power and speed, he doubled as gifted receiver coming out the backfield. He was the centerpiece for the Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” that won a Super Bowl.
Sanders, the self-proclaimed “Prime-Time”, entered the league and quickly established himself as an All-Pro cornerback. And for most of his career (1989-2005), he maintained his reputation as one of the game’s elites. “Prime Time” added to his mystique as an electrifying kick return specialist. Career-wise, his best move was getting away from Atlanta. He bolted from the ATL, hooked up for a short stint with the 49ers and won a Super Bowl in the process. Then it was on to the Cowboys, where he won two more world championship rings.
Picking the remainder of the class is iffy. Two senior nominees are on this year’s ballot (linebackers Chris Hanberger and Les Richter). It’s possible that at least one of those two will get the nod for induction. Based on the Hall’s present by-laws an induction class must have a minimum of four, but not more than seven. The max number of modern-day nominees that any HOF class can have is five.
How the voters continue to overlook Andre Reed (1985-2000) is beyond my comprehension. A consensus pick as one of the best receivers of his era, Reed was a key cog in a no-huddle offense that scored points in a hurry and propelled Buffalo to four straight appearances in the Super Bowl. Given Reed’s career productivity, you’d think he would’ve made the grade by now. It’s a mystery as to why he’s been left on the outside looking in for so long. Four of his former Bills teammates have already been enshrined. This could be the year that the waiting finally ends and Reed is in.
Two of the game’s all-time pass rushers are in contention for consideration. For me, Richard Dent is a sentimental pick. Dent (1983-1997) was an absolute terror at defensive end. His presence fortified an already ferocious Bears defense that dominated everybody in ’85 when the Monsters of the Midway shuffled their way to a Super Bowl blow-out victory. Haley, who split time at defensive end and outside linebacker, posted some outstanding numbers in his day (1986-1999). He recorded 100 career sacks and is the only player in NFL history to win five Super Bowls (two with the 49ers, three with the Cowboys).
With Faulk being on the ballot, it seemed almost automatic that running backs Jerome Bettis (Rams and Steelers) and Curtis Martin (Jets and Patriots) would get left out in the cold this time around.  Bettis closed out his 12-year career by winning a Super Bowl and he’s sixth among the NFL’s all-time rushing leaders. Martin (1995-2005) wasn’t as high profile as “The Bus”, but one could debate that he was at the same level. Martin never won a championship, but finished his career as No. 4 on the league’s career list for rushing yards. These two will have to wait it out this time.