The NHL at its best and its worst

It was just a few weeks ago when Shawn Thornton assaulted Penguins Defenseman Brooks Orpik.  For his part in slew footing and punching Orpik (continuing even while Orpik was out cold) Thornton got a 15 game suspension. (if you must see the violence :

But let’s not pretend this kind of stuff is limited to Thornton who is generally seen as a good guy, not a thug. 22 players in the NHL have been suspended this year! (see http://www.tsn.ca/nhl/feature/?id=50596)

That’s a ton. Remember, the NHL season/post-season goes into May. TSN’s venerable Bob McKenzie make the point on Twitter that things were never nice in the NHL, so maybe the players aren’t worse but the rules are changing. All of this though is driven by science, law suits and changing norms about what is acceptable risk and the correct impact of playing sports.

The NFL just settled a law suit for over 700 Million dollars related to concussions. But it still struggles. Hockey though, I would argue is different. It’s more dangerous. The ice is unforgiving, it’s played with sharp skates and sticks, and fighting…real fighting not NFL fights, is allowed. This is the culture of the NHL. Just watch the great hockey movie Slapshot and see how much of this (admittedly fake) movie centers on violence.

Now, I love hockey. When played right, it is perhaps the best team sport in the world. It’s fast, it’s dangerous and it’s very exciting. But I also wonder if the NHL (and maybe the NFL) will survive moving forward. The law suits are just getting started. The players refuse to change. And players continue to suffer terrible consequences. Sidney Crosby, no doubt the best player in the NHL, lost nearly two seasons to concussions. This says nothing to the players who leave hockey and suffer debilitating consequences of brain injuries. I don’t have many answers unfortunately. A strong consensus is for harsher punishments, and to try to force players to change. For example, to stop head shots and boarding. But the players don’t seem to want to change. Are they accepting the risk? Should we not pretend that fighting and the violence of hockey doesn’t attract some people? Tough to say.

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8-8 here we come! Playoffs…

Not so much.

We’re amazingly still in with a chance of making the post-season, despite our 0-4 and 2-6 start to the season.  It will require losses on the part of the Dolphins (vs Jets), Ravens (vs Bengals who might rest some of their stars) and San Diego (vs Chiefs, ditto), but it is technically possible, if not likely.

What a great win over a Green Bay side that showed some real spirit despite being without their star in Aaron Rodgers.  Le’Veon Bell gave us his first 100 yard game – also our first 100 yard game since 1942 (ok, a slight exaggeration) – and Antonio Brown broke the franchise’s single season receiving yards record.  The D also came up big, forcing fumbles and even grabbing a pick-6.  Of course, it wasn’t perfect – what is in week 16 of the NFL season when everyone is on their last legs? – special teams had its highs (a fake punt thrown to Paulson for a nice first down pickup) and its lows (giving up 71 yards on the final return to put the Packers in great position to tie or even win the game) but we came out 7-8 and headed for the heady mediocrity of a .500 season.

Let’s talk for a second about the mind-numbingly awful game management that put us in a position to possibly lose the game.  Green Bay called its last timeout just before Bell’s late touchdown.  Bell broke the goal line with 1m25 remaining.  I don’t blame Bell, what else was he supposed to do?  Unless told to do otherwise, he’s going to break the line of scrimmage and run as far as he can.

Bell scored on a 2nd and 1.  If we took a knee, we could have let the clock run to roughly 45 seconds. Third down…take a delay of game, whatever.  Chip in the field goal and leave them the return and the return alone to try and get through.  Don’t give them 60% of a two minute drill – especially (and hindsight is a wonderful thing) when you can’t stop a return man in his own half of the field.

We were lucky that Green Bay didn’t score.  True, the referees would have owed us after that crazy blocked FG situation which resulted in a touchdown for the Packers, but still.

Tomlin has probably rallied the team enough to save his job.  Maybe even those of the coordinators (although I wonder about Haley’s value given his relationship with Ben).  We should not, however, forget that the team was underprepared for many games early this season.  Nor should we forget a few cases of just amateurish game management.

But first, let’s give the Browns a final doing before we start to think about anything else.

The Steelers finally come to play

Well, that was quite a start to a game, wasn’t it?

The Bengals, division leaders and, according to some, the second best team in the AFC (which would make them somewhere around 6th best in the league, if you try to extrapolate that nonsensical thinking) struggled badly with the windy conditions at Heinz Field and were blown away early by a team that looked a lot like our beloved Steelers.

You probably read Dejan Kovacevic already if you’re reading this blog (and I agree with him about 90% of the time – not to mention that he’s a super bloke who has even given me feedback on this blog), but he quite rightly gave a lot of credit to Mike Tomlin and the coaching staff for getting things together for this weekend’s game in his Monday column.

The point where I don’t really agree with him is that he decides not to bemoan where this Steelers team has been all season long.  Our O looked really good, but it has been playing well for a number of games now.  Ben has been at his very best for a while now, only blotting his record with a pick in this game – his first for about 200 pass attempts.

Ike Taylor, much maligned for so much of the season, once again shut down AJ Green.  I was yelling at the TV when Taylor was not covering Green at points in the second half, particularly on the Bengals’ final TD drive when Dalton went from easy first down to easy first down, picking out wide open receivers, but he really did a good job on one of the league’s very best.

The D showed up at times, but the second half showed that there are very obvious holes throughout our defensive set up. We struggle in particular with the long ball and the fact that Dalton chose not to use Green a lot more is perhaps fortunate on our part.

The Pittsburgh weather, which kept some 20k fans on their couches (look, I’ve only ever been to one Steelers game and it was in late October, but there is no way I would miss a divisional game because it was a bit cold), played havoc with the Bengals early on, the most unfortunate soul being punter Kevin Huber who nearly gave up a safety when a long snap went a fair bit wider of its target (i.e., him) than intended.  Instead Huber was stopped at the 1 and LeVeon Bell (impressive but surely not fully recovered from last week’s brutal head injury?) punched it in for the first score of the game.  Huber then had his head very nearly taken off by special teams LB Terence Garvin.

Garvin has come under severe criticism online for his block, which at the very least broke Huber’s jaw, particularly from outspoken ex-punter Chris Kluwe.  I am a bit more cautious before delivering criticism to him on this occasion.  The rules apparently do protect Huber as being in a “defenseless posture” for the duration of the return play.  What?  Like Huber couldn’t at least have tried to make a play on the returning Antonio Brown and perhaps stopped the TD play?  Of course, I am a Steeler fan so I’m not completely objective here.

Lets say Garvin doesn’t block Huber and Huber stops Brown and we end up with a field goal or less.  You don’t think Garvin is getting a talk from the coaching staff today and perhaps finding himself looking for work?  Additionally, you don’t think that the special teams guys, not forgetting that our special teams has been occasionally woeful this season, are firing each other up to the point of murderous aggression before each and every ST play?

If the NFL wants to protect punters, then have them run off the field once they’ve punted.  Hell, give the kicking team another player to replace them.  Otherwise they’re going to get hit from time to time.  You’ll all recall Pat McAfee, the Colts punter, knocking the electric Denver return man Trindon Holliday out of bounds with a helmet to helmet hit?  Google “Colts punter hit” and see the headlines praising this brutal and illegal action.  McAfee wasn’t fined.

Anyway, we are now 6-8 on the season with a game in Green Bay coming up.  The Packers were very good against Dallas, but there are weaknesses in the team which we can exploit.  Without a couple of Romo interceptions, Dallas had this game in the bag.  We then have the Browns.  Finishing 8-8 is a very real possibility, a finish which of course does nothing for our draft pick (assuming we don’t make the playoffs, which is almost certain), but we were already in line for a fairly middling pick.  There are ways of improving your pick, of course.

Final word goes to LaMarr Woodley who suffered yet another minor injury and missed almost the whole game.  Time’s up LaMarr.  You are replaceable.  Perhaps you’ve been trying too hard to get back and prove your value to the team, but that $22.5m in guaranteed money should see you through.  Jason Worilds, assuming we are able to keep him, is the way forward for this team.  Thanks and good luck somewhere else.

Josh McWOWn: fantasy stud

This silly little game called fantasy football that we all play and, in some cases, care more about than the teams we claim to support, eh?

At the start of the season my league, run with a few friends from the Hearts support network across the world (okay, largely Edinburgh, but including Minneapolis and Harrisburg), had its draft during the NFL preseason.  It was about 2pm central time, which was 8pm for my friends back home.  On that day, the New Orleans Saints were in Houston for a pre-season game.

This was a problem for me: I wanted to do my fantasy draft properly, but I also wanted to go see the game.  The Texans were heavily favored in the AFC for the upcoming season and the Saints had Drew Brees likely to play at least a half of the game, maybe longer.

A long time ago I made a pledge to myself that I would try to enjoy sports as a form of entertainment.  That sounds a little new-age, doesn’t it?  What I mean is that wherever possible, I would go to watch the very best athletes play in their chosen sport while I could.  I missed out on the Michael Jordan era, not because I wasn’t into basketball, but because I wasn’t in the US during NBA seasons while he was at his peak.  My first ever trip to the US was in 1998 so I could only ever have made it to a Wizards game, but still, that would have been cool.  I’ve now seen LeBron James play four times.  He’s awesome.  Properly awesome, not like the cheeseburger you had last week.

On the same principle, last week I went to see Tom Brady pull out a narrow win for the Patriots against the Texans.  So, all those weeks ago, I went to see Drew Brees try to ease himself into shape against the Texans.  This meant I missed my fantasy draft but the auto-draft did me proud.  I had been thinking about either Ryan Tannehill or Michael Vick.  I ended up with Vick.  Obviously that hasn’t turned out all that well (I did pick up Foles when Vick went down the first time, but a mediocre performance in his first full game prompted me to pick up Case Keenum…I’m far from a fantasy genius, I confess) but at the start it was amazing.  I started 4-0 behind strong performances from Vick.  Small point of note, the backup Saints QB that day was Luke McCown.

Once the Case Keenum fantasy experiment was over, I picked up EJ Manuel off waivers.  I still have Vick on my bench, but it looks likely that he is done for the year, largely because of the form of Nick Foles.  That probably means he’s done at Philly.  Perhaps he’s even done in the NFL, who knows?

In a moment of inspiration just over a week ago, however, I noticed that Josh McCown was available on waivers.  Jay Cutler (have you noticed that his name is often run together to make it sound like Jake Utler?)  I decided to take the plunge and go with Chicago’s seven-team reject backup QB.

Josh McCown is so old, he played with Emmitt Smith.  Indeed he was the last QB to hand off to the great running back.  He was drafted out of Sam Houston State and is their only alum in the NFL today.  His first team, the Arizona Cardinals, played its first season in the NFC West that year.  Prior to the season, linebacker Pat Tillman turned down a three-year, $3.6 million contract offer to enlist in the Army.

McCown eventually lost the starting job in Arizona to Kurt Warner.  That worked out pretty well for the Cards.  Since then, he’s bounced around the league: Detroit, Oakland, Miami, Carolina, the Hartford Colonials of the UFL and San Francisco.  He signed in Chicago in 2011 to backup Caleb Hanie.

He’s been in Chicago ever since, but it is only in the last few weeks, filling in for the injured Jay Culter that McCown has shone.  He has thrown ONE pick this season, in 220 pass attempts.  In the three games since the overtime win in Baltimore, he has thrown for 352, 355 and 348 yards and eight TDs, four of them last night.

Last night, I went into my fantasy matchup with one player left against a team that had a two point lead and Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray and the Dallas D to play.  Josh McCown gave me THIRTY-EIGHT points and a famous win.  His previous three weeks saw him get 12, 18 and 22 points.  He is clearly going to lose his starting role as soon as Cutler is fit again.  Cutler still, despite his injury issues, has one of the best arms in the entire league.  One suspects that Josh will not be short of offers, should he decide to part ways with the Bears this off-season.  At the age of thirty-four, he is finally playing the sort of football that gets you noticed.

Perhaps McCown’s legacy will always be these last few weeks, but the national obsession with fantasy football has clearly helped that legacy become somewhat more durable than it might otherwise have been.

Josh McCown, I salute you.  You are a BALLER.

Steelers 5-8 and done?

Another “interesting” weekend as a Steelers fan.  We were the width of Antonio Brown’s outside cleat from stealing a win late against the Miami Dolphins.  I say “stealing” but when you have snow on the pitch and you’re playing a team from south Florida outside, the fact that you are only in a position to “steal” a game from them, I think it’s fair to say that something is badly wrong.

Bob Labriola on steelers.com suggested that all was left was to “win and pray”.  Ike Taylor was more defiant: “we still got jobs, we still got games to play” said the aging corner, who has his game of the season next weekend against Cincinnati and the one player in the league who he seems to be kryptonite for, AJ Green.

Trib columnist Dejan Kovacevic was “more assertive” in his view of the Steelers.  He is also totally right.  Enough is enough.

Taylor, age 33, is contracted until the 2015-2016 season and is due $11.9 million next year.  He gets burned all ends up all the time by everyone except, oddly, Green.  I get it, it’s not easy being a DB in the NFL at the moment, particularly if the league institutes new rules on hitting of receivers below the waist which is being called for in light of Rob Gronkowski’s ACL tear.  This isn’t even factoring in the complicated pass interference rules which see DBs give up huge penalty yards on occasionally marginal calls.  You need much, much better DBs to cope in this NFL compared to years gone by.  There aren’t many around, but the ones in Pittsburgh are perhaps due for replacement.  Taylor is far from the major issue in this team – although at $12m next season you could perhaps argue he is a part of it.

We have too many guys earning too much money and not performing.  Case in point: LaMarr Woodley.

LaMarr Woodley is contracted until 2017-2018 and is guaranteed $22.5 million.  And he has played like a guy who knows he is guaranteed twenty-two and a half million dollars throughout this season.  CUT HIM AND CUT HIM NOW (or, trade him, either or).  If we do, maybe we can afford to keep the infinitely more productive Jason Worilds, who has been almost a revelation since the shift to LOLB.  This is why we drafted him above Sean Lee (or at least, lets tell ourselves this is why).

Now, I’m willing to consider the possibility that it is our D as a whole that has been in trouble this season, but that suggests that Dick LeBeau is the one that needs to go.  Truth is, even if he does, we’ll still have way too many guys in their thirties playing on both sides of the ball.  Our O line has shored up a bit, perhaps miraculously, and has a few younger guys who have impressed, but when you examine our salaries, you’ll see deals that look like they belong in MLB.  Long years, old guy, high money.  Disastrous.

There are some guys on sensible deals: Antonio Brown is contracted until the 2018-2019 season with $8.5 million guaranteed.  Brown has developed into our best receiver this season and Jerricho Cotchery has impressed.  While it saddens me to say, Emmanuel Sanders has developed a dropping problem that will not make him a viable option next season unless he lowers his financial expectations.

Let’s be honest here, we’re done.  Even if we beat Cincinnati, we have to go to Green Bay where we might face Aaron Rodgers.  The Packers look pretty much done as well, so they might shut Rodgers down for the year if his collarbone doesn’t heal fully in the very near future.  That would be bad news for the Steelers as it might put us in a position to win.

We could end up 8-8 for the season.  And what good would it do us?  No playoffs, no good draft pick in a draft where we seem likely to lose one of our late round picks because Coach Tomlin sort of got in Jacoby Jones’s way (what a dumb punishment that is – if you can prove he meant it, ban him! Taking draft picks is the sort of thing that should be done for an ORGANIZATION that has broken the rules, not in cases of an individual who may or may not have).

The solution?  Trades.  The NFL isn’t really a trading league, but we NEED to make some.  Our cap hit is ridiculous next year and our space could be as low as $63k.  Find a team that will take guys like Woodley, even if it means taking 50 cents on the dollar for him.  We could also just cut him and take the cap hit, but perhaps we can bring in draft picks through these trades and we not only badly need them (thanks to Tomlin’s touchline dance) but we need to use them wisely.

Next season is not a total wash yet.  Even if we end up 8-8 we can still put ourselves in a position to perform next season.  It will, however take a lot of creativity on the part of our front office.

Can you still be an elite DB in the modern NFL?

In an interview with CSN’s James Palmer, Houston Texans cornerback Jonathan Joseph spoke about how frustrating he found being a defensive back in the NFL.  Joseph had of course just come off a humiliating second loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars which saw the Texans, who were pre-season candidates for the Superbowl, slump to 2-11 and ultimately cost coach Gary Kubiak his job.  Joseph was but one Texan who has underperformed this season, but happens to play in a position where the shortcomings of an individual can be exposed like no other.

Two years ago, an article appeared on ESPN.com which emphasised that the fact that the NFL had become more of a passing league made life for corners very difficult.  Nnamdi Asomugha (currently of no fixed abode) commented:

It’s like an all-star game now. Fans want to see points. The higher-ups know that, and make life a lot harder on us. I think — I don’t think, I know — the cornerback position is the most difficult position in all of sports.

The rule change on hitting a defenseless receiver made life very difficult for any defensive player who might find themselves tackling a receiver.  The fact that the new rules were being implemented last season with replacement referees made things all the tougher.

Many defensive backs are considerably smaller than their opponents.  This has been the case with long, athletic receivers like Calvin Johnson (6’5″), Andre Johnson (6″3″) and Brandon Marshall (6’4″) for a while, but the emergence of down the field tight ends like 6’6″ Rob Gronkowski and 6’7″ Jimmy Graham has made it even tougher for a guy like the 5’11” Joseph.

Perhaps the toughest rule to overcome is the NFL’s “spot of the foul” pass interference rule.  This rule is messed up from both perspectives.

The recent Patriots-Panthers game ended with a pass interference call being overturned because the pass that Tom Brady threw to Rob Gronkowski, the subject of the interference, was deemed uncatchable.  Unfortunately the NFL only goes so far as to define “uncatchable” as “clearly” which is a super-subjective rule to allow for what can be a particularly expensive penalty.

From the defensive perspective, the rule can be very expensive.  If you are chasing a receiver down the field and are deemed to have impeded his ability to catch the ball, you will be penalized as if the receiver had caught the ball at the spot of the foul.  In theory this could be almost a length-of-the-field penalty.  Again, the subjectivity of the call is very high.  It is well known that many coaches tell their players to play physically because the referees are unlikely to call penalties on every single play.  This is clearly related to the additional protection afforded to both passers and receivers under the new (ish) laws: the game is more entertaining when huge catches are made.

The people who lose out, unfortunately enough for them, are the defensive backs who end up with all these penalty yards against their name.  This season, Joseph has accounted for 55 penalty yards, two of which have been on third down.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers give up 77 yards a game in penalties, the most in the NFL.  Second is Seattle who give up 74.25. What do these two teams have in common?  They both have supposedly “elite” cornerbacks in the shape of Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman.

In his career, Sherman has given up 176 penalty yards; 81 this season.  Of his five penalties this season, three are for pass interference, two for unnecessary roughness.  Revis has been more successful, giving up 132 yards and only three this season (in a pass interference call).  Revis is also two years longer tenured than Sherman.  Sherman is, however, the member of the more successful team.

So it can be argued that it is indeed still possible to be an elite cornerback in the 2013 NFL, it’s just a lot harder than it used to be.

Johnny Man-NFL?

Nice pun there, don’t you think?

My time in Texas has happily coincided with the tenure of Johnny Manziel as the quarterback of the Texas A&M Aggies.  His first game for the Aggies was back in early September 2012 against Florida, where he went 23/30 for 173 yards with a rushing TD in a loss before throwing for four and running in two further TDs the following week at Southern Methodist.  His signature performance was of course the famous road win in Tuscaloosa, but the Cotton Bowl demolishing of Oklahoma was also noteworthy.  Manziel was a worthy Heisman winner, the first (redshirt) freshman to win it ever.

This season he has been pretty good as well, to say the least.  He had a slow start against Rice, to be expected as he sat out the first half with perhaps the most pathetic suspension in NCAA history, but still finished with 19 yards rushing and 94 yards in the air for three touchdowns.  He then was responsible for 4, 5, 3, 2, 2, 5, 4, 6, 5, 1 and 1 TDs over the rest of the regular season schedule for the Aggies.  The first 5 TD game was against none other than two-time defending national champions, Alabama.  The second 5 TD game was against Auburn.  The third against Mississippi State.  He didn’t play so well on the road against LSU, or indeed against Missouri to probably close out his college career, which probably put paid to his Heisman prospects.

His adjusted QBR this season is a little worse – 84.5 compared to 90.5 last season.  He has more interceptions, 13 compared to 9, but he has more TDs: 33 compared to 26.  His completion percentage is up from 68% to 69.1%.  He’s accounted for 26 more yards than last season.  His passer rating is up from 155.3 to 170.4.  He’s not as reckless on the move as he was – his rushing yards have fallen from 1410 to 686 and his rushing TDs are down from 21 to 8.

Now the conventional wisdom is that Manziel’s time in College Station is up.  He was clearly unhappy with the goldfish bowl of the small town last summer when he was seen partying across the nation, notably in Austin.  He has been “forced” to take online classes by the fact that he can’t have an ordinary student lifestyle in College Station, so he’s not necessarily ever on campus except for footballing activities.  Johnny doesn’t want to be there, that much is obvious.  But maybe he really needs to be there.

I just can’t help wondering if Johnny wouldn’t be better of staying in college and playing out his four years.

He is an absolute STUD in college football.  The most electrifying talent there is.  People watch games just because Johnny Manziel is playing.  He evades tackles like a ballerina, sprints like a track star and makes throws to receivers that aren’t even close to being open.

I can’t see him doing any of the above in the NFL.  The defensive players there are too good.

People have questioned his size.  He’s listed at 6’1″ and 210lbs.  The average NFL QB is 6’3″.  Two QBs of Manziel’s size have been drafted in the first round in recent years: Mike Vick and Rex Grossman.  Drew Brees was a second round pick in 2001.  The average NFL QB weighs 224.  Of course Manziel could pack on a few pounds, but the possibility of that extra weight inhibiting his famous athleticism would perhaps limit the amount of weight any coach would like to see him add.

Denard Robinson has played in 12 NFL games.  He’s returned four kickoffs for an average of 22 yards – pretty good.  He’s rushed for an average of 1.9 yards on 15 carries, but fumbled the ball twice (losing one).  He’s thrown once and it was an incompletion.  Robinson is listed at 5’11” and 197lbs.  He was a phenomenon at Michigan, but at the NFL?  “Offensive Weapon”.  That’s his position.  Translation: he’s not quite good enough at anything to play at the NFL level

The NFL comparison that Manziel’s agent should be putting out to NFL teams is Russell Wilson.  However, Wilson played out his full college eligibility at NC State and Wisconsin.  He ended his college career with a passer rating of 191.8 and reduced his rushes by half from his last year in Raleigh to his only year in Madison – but he rushed more efficiently with his average of 4.3 yards a career high.

Does anyone seriously look at Johnny Manziel and think “he’s the next Russell Wilson”?

Wilson’s reputation is all about character, about being a student of the game, about striving for greatness.  Not to say that Manziel doesn’t have those attributes, but they are not the first things that you think of when you talk about Johnny Football.  “Johnny Football” is a registered trademark, for example.

Wright Thompson wrote a revealing article on Manziel for ESPN back in July.  His family is rich.  He drives a Mercedes.  He doesn’t want for anything, materially.  Essentially, he might lack the drive that is absolutely necessary for someone to succeed in the NFL.

Some questions have been asked about his arm strength.  I think that’s fine, actually.  He can work on it.  However, his accuracy could be a major problem.  He has had Mike Evans, perhaps the best WR in college football this year, to throw to these past two years.  Evans has that Calvin Johnson ability to grab anything that is thrown within two meters of his head.  If Manziel ends up on a team without such a receiver – and that is most teams – he’s going to have to be a lot more accurate.

Given he is small and perhaps not accurate enough for the NFL and given that he is already rich and about as famous as it is possible for a college athlete to be, I ask you: “shouldn’t Johnny Manziel just stay where he is?”

Play your four years of college ball Johnny.  Go for four Heisman awards.  I’ll be damned if you aren’t in with a shot of back-to-back Heismans.  Maybe if your defense could stop anyone, you’d already have it sewn up.  Maybe if Jameis Winston’s career – and life – go down the toilet, if these allegations against him are true, you’ll be back in with a real shot of it anyway.

The NFL will still be there for you in 2015 Johnny.  Stay.  Please?