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.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Question for Big Ben: If not now, then when?

      I don’t understand why Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger refused to answer questions about his off-the-field issues during media day for Super Bowl XLV. There are no secrets about the bad choices he made which led to him being suspended for several games at the start of the 2010 NFL season.
      Big Ben had the opportunity to “fess up” about what he’s learned from all that’s happened to him over the past 12 months. Instead, he dodged answering any questions about his recent past. And he was skillful in doing so, in the same manner that he sidesteps blitzing linebackers.
       It would’ve been a good thing and the right thing for Roethlisberger to cease with the radio silence on what is clearly a touchy topic for him. Touchy topic or not, Big Ben should realize that folks can benefit from what he has to say. Youngsters who wear his No. 7 jersey would witness first-hand how a role model handles difficult situations. And given that the Super Bowl is such a public platform, there's no question that Roethlisberger would have a captive audience.
       Guess that will have to happen at some other time. Or, maybe it won’t happen at all. Big Ben told the media that Super Bowl week was not the time for him to reflect. For now, all his attention is focused on the game to be played on Sunday.
       My question about all that, is this: If not now Ben, then when?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

True Redemption Is Not About Winning Games

       We’ve been led to believe by the media hounds that when marquee sports figures mess up big time and they come back and their teams win -- it’s redemption.
      No. No. No.
       Winning games doesn’t tell you anything about a player’s personal life or his willingness and ability to do the right thing. Quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Michael Vick made the most of their on-the-field opportunities in the aftermath of much-publicized off-the-field issues. From all indications, wide receiver Plaxico Burress will be the next in line.
        Burress, whose two-year prison sentence ends in June, will be available for duty in 2011. As for when the next season actually kicks off, it’s hard to say. That will depend on when the NFL labor talks are settled. The Plax-man sabotaged himself out of a lucrative job nearly two years ago. He accidentally shot himself in a New York City night club and got busted for weapons possession and reckless endangerment.
       Even though he’ll turn 34 later this year, Burress will draw more than passing interest from several teams. Giants quarterback Eli Manning would welcome him back, and for good reason. Manning and Plax-man hooked on the winning touchdown pass in the Giants thrilling comeback win over the near-perfect Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. The Baltimore Ravens are also on record as being intensely interested. You can be sure that other teams will be in touch.
        It’s good that Burress will get a second chance. No doubt, he’ll have to assure prospective employers that he’s regrouped and gotten his life together. But regardless of whether he makes another game-winning catch or not, redemption is not part of that equation.
       For Big Ben, Vick, and Plax, the real test takes place during the off-season months. But it won’t end there. Nobody plays forever. There aren’t too many active pro players past their mid-30s. Retirement time comes for everyone, it’s inevitable. What happens after it’s time to hang up the helmet and shoulder pads for good?
        True redemption should reveal some newness about the redeemed. It’s about replacing negative habits with positive habits. It’s about implementing change that makes a difference. Just know that change isn’t always instant. It’s a day-by-day commitment. It’s a determination to do the right thing regardless of whether you’re behind closed doors or standing in the bright glare of the public spotlight.

Monday, January 31, 2011

'O Say Can You See': Some Folks Just Don't Get It

       I'm really beginning to wonder about some folks who live in the Midwest.
       Last summer, LeBron James went public with "The Decision" to leave Cleveland and bolt to the Miami Heat. A number of irate Cavaliers fans didn't take too kindly to that, so they became witnesses in torching LeBron's jersey.
       Fast forward a few months to Chicago. The Bears lose to the Packers in the NFC championship game and some loyal fans took out of their frustrations on the quarterback.  You recall that starting QB Jay Cutler left the game with an injured knee. These devoted followers of the "Monsters of the Midway" believed that in spite of the injury, Cutler could have and should have continued to play. They are forever convinced that Cutler quit on his team. The response? Not only did they burn Cutler's No. 6 jersey, they urinated on it too. How's that for class?
      But now here comes another strange turn of events. It's not directly related to sports. But it does center on a familiar tradition which takes place before the start of every athletic contest held in America -- the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner. Or in this case, the singing of the national anthem in a way that some perceive as being non-traditional and disrespectful.
      Shai Warfield-Cross is a black teenager who attends Bloomington High School North in Bloomington, Indiana. For over a year, she has sung the national anthem at school events, and nobody ever had a problem with her style of singing. That changed recently when the 16-year old sang the anthem before the start of a basketball game at Martinsville, Indiana, a small, mostly-white community located near Indianapolis. When some folks from Martinsville complained to Warfield-Cross' principal, she was told she needed to modify her rendition so it would be recognizable to people attending school events. The people in Martinsville insisted that the national anthem they heard was not recognizable and did not show proper respect to past and current members of the U.S. Armed Forces.
      When you listen to the teen's rendition, you have to scratch your head. This sort of reaction to breaking tradition is nothing new. Jose Feliciano got mixed results back in the late '60s. There was a lot of negative feedback from war veterans after he performed his rendition at Yankee Stadium. As a result, a lot of radio stations quit playing his songs for a long time.
       Any reasonable person knows that when it comes to singing, different artists have different styles. Just because a style differs from the standard doesn't make it disrespectful in and of itself. Marvin Gaye wooed a capacity-filled arena with his version of the anthem before the start of an NBA All-Star game in the early '80s. I doubt if anybody in that building felt dishonored in any way.
       The Star-Spangled Banner is not just any song. And the way someone sings it, should reflect their love and respect for America. That's what should count more than anything else. Personally, I think that if any version should raise some eyebrows, it's the rendition performed by Christina Aguilera. Her version has drum beats in it, and she delivers some minor riffs and few "uh, uhs" to add a touch of hip-hop flavor.
       This whole episode with Shai Warfield-Cross is messy. This sounds more like differences in race and culture, as opposed to respect for our nation or the lack of it. Keep in mind that the words "land of the free" are part of the national anthem. As a friend of mine mentioned, "freedom of expression applies to whom?” As far as I'm concerned, Shai's rendition is hardly non-traditional. Had no trouble figuring out what song the young lady was singing. I spent a few years in the Air Force and it's AOK with me.
       Better still, you decide. Check it out by clicking on this link

Friday, January 28, 2011

QB Tyrod Taylor shows zero interest in switching positions

       Tyrod Taylor has always played quarterback. He sees no reason why he can't do the same in the NFL.
       But there are others who are convinced that he has far more value as a wide receiver and/or kick return specialist at the next level. Given Taylor's swift feet and shifty moves, changing positions seems like a reasonable option to consider.
       Taylor isn't interested. He has no desire to be the 21st century version of Kordell 'Slash" Stewart.
       Quite frankly, you can't blame him. Since the age of five, Taylor has been the signal caller for every team he's ever played on. This past season, he led the Hokies to the Orange Bowl and finished the season with 2,700-plus passing yards and 24 touchdowns. Plus he has that added dimension of being able to routinely turn negative plays into positive plays.
       However, there are pro football insiders who are thoroughly convinced that Taylor lacks the tools to be a legitimate NFL quarterback. They say his height (6-feet) will hinder his chances of being successful, because he won't able to see over the taller linemen to make accurate throws. While it's true that most pro QBs are 6-feet-3 or taller, there are some notable exceptions. Heard of Drew Brees? How about Michael Vick? Both are about Taylor's height and both are proven commodities in the league.
       Taylor will have to adjust to being a drop-back passer, which is something he didn't do much of in Virginia Tech's spread offense. Not a problem. He's already working on it, as evidenced by his play in last week's East-West Shrine game. The East-West is a college all-star exhibition in which the college stars get to show their wares in front of the probing eyes of NFL scouts and coaches.  Taylor raised a few eyebrows at practice sessions for the East-West game when he declined to play other positions.
       Dan Reeves, a former NFL coach got an eyeful of Taylor as one of the East-West coaches. In his mind, there's no doubt that Taylor has what it takes to make it in the pros-- as a quarterback. Reeves, by the way, was on hand when Vick started his pro career. As head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, Reeves was instrumental in Vick's early development.
       Tyrod T routinely breaks down defenses with his legs, but he also has a strong arm and has shown that he can throw with accuracy. Folks at the East-West game got a taste of what Taylor is capable of when running a pro-style offense. He led the East team in completing four of five passes for 59 yards.
       This week, he looks to further impress the scouts when he plays in the Senior Bowl on Saturday.
       Taylor is not viewed as a first-round pick like Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. As a quarterback, he's likely to go in the late rounds. But it's all good.
       Tyrod T has such a positive upside that at least two teams have reportedly targeted him already as a QB for the NFL draft in April (San Francisco and Oakland). He's got so much going for him physically. And it's clear that he'll improve by leaps and bounds, especially if he's taken by a team that will show patience in allowing him to fully develop.
        With that being said, there's still an X-factor in all this. And it shouldn't be ignored.
        Tyrod Taylor gets a big jolt out of proving people wrong.     

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hey Herschel ... Pa-leeeeze say it ain't so

       Herschel Walker's desire to play pro football again might not be such a bad idea if the NFL had a 40-years and older bracket. But since that's not the case, the former Heisman Trophy winner should abandon such talk.      
       Yeah, I've heard the conversations about how he's still a marvelous physical specimen. Can't argue with that. It's obvious that Herschel has not been rooted to a Lazy-Boy since he retired from the game 13 years ago. And sure, he's got the requisite toughness as a shining star on the mixed martial arts circuit.
       Looks can be deceiving.
       Exhibit A: Muhammad Ali.
       "The Greatest" had everybody psyched out when he faced Larry Holmes as a 38-year old shell of himself in 1980. Ali's weight was down and physically, he looked as fit as the night he "whupped" Sonny Liston. Looks couldn't help Ali against his old sparring partner. It was so sad to look at that full-page picture of Ali that ran on the back page of the New York Times. The photo captured the visual essence of a worn-out and badly bludgeoned fighter sitting on a stool in his corner, unable to answer the bell for the 11th round of a scheduled 15-round championship fight.
       Herschel, whose 49th birthday isn't that far off, is still chiseled. At 215 pounds, he's a little lighter than what he was during his days as a pro. As for speed, who really knows? He claims he can run 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash. I'm not convinced of that. But let's give him the benefit of the doubt. And let's not forget that the Herschmeister was an Olympic bobsledder.
       An adage that many of us have heard since high school still rings true. Football is a collision sport. The only way to get in shape for football is to play football. The last time Herschel was on an NFL payroll as a player, Bill Clinton had just started his second term as America's Commander-in-Chief.
       That's a long time to stay away from the collision sport. As an athlete ages, their reflexes and reaction time diminish. Also consider the physical pounding that pro players take, running backs in particular. In the fighting sports such as boxing and mixed martial arts, the athletes don't compete all that often (three, four times a year) compared to pro football. In contrast, the NFL season is now running five months or longer (depending on if a team makes the playoffs and how far they advance).
        At best, it would be a long shot for Herschel to survive the rigors of practices and games for that length of time -- and that's being kind. When an athlete stays in a sport for too long, or attempts to make a comeback well past his or her prime, he or she invites disaster. We can all remember scenarios of players trying to recapture their days of glory even though their time as a prime-time player was over. It was sad to watch legends like Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson in the final days.
       As for me, I'd rather remember Herschel as that amazingly freakish package of size and speed in those days when he was the Goliath of college football. On the pro side, he still ranks among the best all-around offensive players to ever put on a uniform.
      Herschel Walker, do us and yourself a favor. Cease and desist. Instead of an NFL comeback, come up with another idea that has a reasonable chance of coming to pass.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Things will work out OK for fired Chicago car salesman

       By now, most everybody has heard about the Chicago-area car salesman who was fired because he wore a Green Bay Packers necktie to work on Monday. John Stone got a raw deal. There was a better way to handle this. Since he didn't want to take the tie off, why not just tell him to go home and come back the next day?
       The reason he wore the tie in the first place was to honor his recently-deceased grandmother, who was a huge Packers fan. Stone was one of the top salespeople at a Chevrolet dealership in suburban Chicago. That didn't seem to matter. Stone's boss figured that having a salesman wear a Packers tie might alienate potential customers, many of whom are probably avid Bears fans. Apparently, the boss reasoned that the tie would be bad for business because shoppers might perceive it as a means of rubbing it in since the Bears lost to Green Bay in the NFC Championship game on Sunday. In addition, the dealership has several advertising campaigns featuring the Bears.
      To me, it's unimaginable that somebody's allegiance to a sports team could end up with that person losing a job. How ludicrous is that?
      Stone, the father of two, won't be out of work for long. The day after his firing, he was offered a job from a rival Chevy dealership. The rival dealership couldn't resist making an offer after being inundated with phone calls. These calls all but guaranteed a substantial boost in sales for that dealership -- but only if Stone was hired.
      As of early Wednesday morning, Stone had not accepted the job offer, but is interested and was scheduled to meet with the rival dealership's general manager soon. In the meantime, Stone has been contacted by his former boss and was invited to come back. Stone said no thanks.
      But that's not all there is to this story, especially if there's any truth to the buzz going around ChiTown. Rumor has it that Stone will get an all-expenses paid trip to Dallas for Super Bowl XLV, which includes choice tickets to the game. And of course those tickets would be in the Packers section.
      How's that for retribution?
      Sounds pretty good to me.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

TOUGH ENOUGH?: Questions about Cutler will linger

        When are folks going to leave Jay Cutler alone?
        Probably never.
        Unfortunately for Cutler, his toughness quotient is likely to be forever questioned. That's really too bad. The Chicago Bears would've never reached the NFC Championship game without Cutler as the starter at quarterback. OK, so he didn't get much of anything done before being sidelined by a sprained medial collateral ligament in Sunday's loss to Green Bay. Had he been healthy, would he have been banished to the bench? Not a chance.
       Quite honestly, I was very surprised at the uproar caused by some NFL players whose teams didn't even make the playoffs. Guess they felt it was their calling to voice their opinions by making public tweets on Twitter. They weren't the only ones. A couple of well-respected former pros who are now sportscasters chipped in with their two cents worth (talk about piling on). The Bears, led by general manager Jerry Angelo and star linebacker Brian Urlacher came to Cutler's defense. Charles Barkley even joined in by lambasting those who made harsh comments about the Bears QB.
      Was Cutler injured to the point where could no longer play effectively? Bears coach Lovie Smith and the team's medical staff thought so. They made the decision to sit Cutler down for the rest of the day.
      Jay Cutler will learn, if he hasn't already, that from now on, every move he makes will be closely watched. Fact is, it's already happened. Cutler was sighted going to a Chicago-area restaurant where he dined on the second floor. The only problem was that instead of taking the elevator, he walked up the steps -- with no noticeable limp and no crutches. Now folks are thinking that if he can handle some stairs, he should've been able to handle two more quarters of football in a game that determined which team would represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLV.
     Nobody was saying anything about Cutler's toughness when he got jacked-up and broken-up by the New York Giants during the regular season. Philadelphia sports fans are notorious for being unkind. Chicago isn't that far behind. How else could you explain folks burning Cutler's jersey all because their beloved team lost a championship game?
     Sad. Very sad.

Monday, January 24, 2011

STEELERS: Destined to win another Super Bowl? Maybe

          Are the Pittsburgh Steelers a team of destiny? We'll just have to wait and see.
          For now, though, it sure seems that way. The Steelers managed to side-step another bullet in taking a 24-19 win over the mouthy New York Jets in the AFC Championship final on Sunday. And sure, Ben Roethlisberger did his thing as he always does. He finds a way to win and that's the one telling stat by which all elite quarterbacks are measured. By the way, Big Ben's career playoff record is 10-2, which includes two Super Bowl rings.
          But even with Roethlisberger delivering in the clutch as only he can, there are questions. For one, the offensive line is banged up, and there's not much depth. Prize rookie center Maurkice Pouncey swears that he'll be ready for Super Bowl XLV on Feb. 6, but he suffered a high-ankle sprain against the Jets. Those type of sprains usually don't heal that quickly. Will Pouncey be an exception to the rule? Nobody knows. That's key because all QBs -- even Roethlisberger -- need protection. Pittsburgh's O-line faltered in the second half against the Jets. That's why the Steelers were held scoreless after exploding to a 24-zip lead in the first half.
          Can the Steelers offensive front line hold up for one more game? Can Pittsburgh's intimidating defense avoid its tendency ease its foot off the accelerator in the second half of games? True enough, it was the defense that stuffed LaDainian Tomlinson at the goal line on fourth down to end a Jets scoring threat. But let's not forget that on that same drive, tight end Dustin Keller dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone that would have made it a one-possession game with plenty of time left to play.
        That's not the only time that Pittsburgh has benefitted from an opposing receiver acting as if he was afflicted with frost bite of the fingers. Rewind the tape a few weeks ago in the second round of the playoffs. With the game tied at 21 in the fourth quarter, the Baltimore Ravens were driving for a score. The Ravens, however, didn't fully capitalize. All-pro receiver Anquan Boldin dropped a sure touchdown pass in the end zone that would have given the Ravens the lead and changed the complexion of the game. Instead, Baltimore settled for a field goal and a tie. You know the rest of the story. Steelers won it in the end, 31-24.
        Yeah, it's all speculation as to what might have happened if the Jets and Ravens had come through at the decisive moment. Kudos to the Steelers, they are resilient. But there's more to it than that.
         I can't help but wonder what if.
         Getting beat by a great defensive play (like James Harrison's interception vs. the Cardinals in the Super Bowl two seasons ago) is one thing. But to lose because of a dropped pass is quite another. And yes, Roethlisberger did connect on a desperately-needed third down pass play to seal the victory. Still, you'd think that Pittsburgh's offense would be proficient enough to prevent being shut-out in the third and fourth quarters.
       The Steelers are game-tested and have a championship pedigree. But they are not invincible. Can the Green Bay Packers handle the pressure and distractions that come with playing on pro football's biggest stage? When scoring opportunities present themselves will they take full advantage?
        We'll find out soon enough.

       GO FIGURE: You won't see me waving any terrible towels, or sporting any style of Cheesehead headwear. But I'm really at a loss as to how the Packers rate as a 2 1/2-point favorite over the Steelers, who have a decisive advantage in experience. Pittsburgh has a dozen starters who will be playing in their third Super Bowl in six years. What I've learned  is that Las Vegas odds-making is based on the team popularity among the folks who like to place bets. The sentiment of fans and bettors is all well and good, but it won't mean beans on the playing field come Super Sunday.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

NFC Championship: Packers' defense does just enough

          Up to now, the Green Bay Packers defense hasn't gotten the recognition it deserves. Based on what transpired in the NFC championship game on Sunday, all that should start to change.
          That's not to say that this bunch is a reincarnation of Chicago Bears defense of the 1980s which featured a guy known as "the Refrigerator." The Packers stop unit was OK on this day, but not dominating. They simply did what they had to do.
          Green Bay needed substantial inputs on the defensive side of the ball to beat the Chicago Bears 21-14. Next up is a date in Dallas for Super Bowl XLV in two weeks. Even though they won, this game was more of an exercise in survival for the Packers.
          GB cornerback Sam Shields keyed the "d" with two drive-killing interceptions. His last pick crushed all hopes of a miracle comeback for the Bears, who were driving downfield for the potential game-tying score in the final moments. But the most memorable sequence was turned in by a nose tackle of all people -- B.J Raji, all 338 pounds of him. Raji lined up to rush the quarterback, but at the snap of the ball, he dropped back in pass coverage, intercepted a throw and ran it back 18 yards for a Packers touchdown.
          That play should've settled the issue. But it didn't, and it was the fault of Green Bay's defense.
With third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie in the game, the Bears rallied quickly to trim a two-touchdown deficit to seven points with just under five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Chicago scored so quickly because GB's secondary appeared to playing too loose. Earl Bennett caught a medium-range pass and should have been stopped around the 20-yard line, but Nick Collins came up to make the hit and missed badly. Bennett was then home free to put the finishing touches on a 35-yard TD reception. It's unheard of for a formidable defensive unit to get sliced up and diced up by a back-up QB who had played in only five NFL games prior to Sunday.
          So, I say that, to say this.
          The Packers defense did just enough on Sunday.
          To win the Super Bowl, they will have to play better.    
          Much better.    

          NOTE..... Raji's interception was reminiscent of a game-saving play in this year's Sugar Bowl between Ohio State and Arkansas. If you recall, the Razorbacks offense had reached the red zone and were in position to score the game-winning touchdown. Instead, Ohio State DL Solomon Thomas came up with an interception to end that threat and preserve the Buckeyes 31-26 victory.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Out of Texas comes surprise NBA front-runners

          San Antonio is the surprise team in pro basketball so far. Whether the Spurs can maintain their blistering run through the rest of the NBA remains to be seen. We're already slightly past the regular season's mid-point and the Spurs are at the top of their game with a league-best record of 37-6.
          That's impressive. Still, it's very early. A lot can happen between now and the start of the playoffs in late April. The big pluses for San Antonio are savvy and big-game experience. But will those traits be enough to offset a roster that's stocked with older players?
          Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are still good. But both are past 30 and can no longer play extended minutes over the course a long season like they did when they were younger. Ditto for 36-year old Antonio McDyess whose minutes have been reduced. McDyess, though, can still impact a game in short stretches. Then there's Tony Parker, a nine-year veteran who seems like he's been around forever. Parker is only 28, but has played heavy minutes over the past several seasons. At 30, Richard Jefferson has enough quality ball left in him to help San Antonio make another trip to the NBA Finals.
        Coach Greg Popovich figures heavily into the championship equation. His ability to skillfully manage floor minutes for his key older players will pay huge dividends. If the Spurs enter the playoffs in a worn-down state, they won't have much, if any staying power.
         On the other hand, if Coach Pop's crew is rested at the start of the post-season, the Spurs will be tough out for anybody. That includes the Lakers and anybody from the NBA's Eastern Conference.       
         Speaking of the East, the Boston Celtics have already proven that an older team can go a long way. Just look at what happened last season. The Celtics pushed the younger Lakers to a Game Seven of the NBA Finals. And don't forget that Boston was in position to win it all, until they ran out of gas in the fourth quarter of that game. Had the Celts won, it would have been their second league championship in three years.