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.