Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Hockey's Culture Shock

In hockey's recent history, no two weeks has fundamentally shaken the foundations of the game more. First, Don Cherry was fired from Sportsnet and Hockey Night in Canada after racist remarks about immigrants during Coaches Corner. Cherry's comments and opinions weren't new, but the environment around him changed while he did not, and after not apologizing for them, he was let go.

Hindsight being 20/20, Cherry's firing was the first domino to fall in a series of earthquakes shaking the very foundations of what hockey has been for generations. When Mike Babcock was fired from the Toronto Maple Leafs last week, stories began to trickle about his tenure and what happened behind the scenes, and some of those stories were not pretty.
Babcock asked then rookie Mitch Marner what players had the best and worst work ethic on the team, which was then publicly shared. Babcock did apologize, but the damage was already done. Babcock has a reputation for "mind games" like this that precede him, but there can be no doubt other past and current coaches have done something similar, but have not made it past the dressing room walls.

By late Monday night, the avalanche was getting bigger and bigger. Akim Aliu, a former NHLer, said that a Babcock protege, Bill Peters, targeted racial slurs at him when they were both in the AHL in Rockford. Next, a former player of his in Carolina, Michal Jordan, said that Peters physically attacked him:
When current Hurricanes coach and then assistant Rod Brind'Amour confirmed multiple incidents like Jordan's occurred, the avalanche grew larger still.

Many of these stories stayed behind dressing room walls for so long because of the culture that enabled this conduct in the first place. People in hockey have looked the same, talked the same and acted the same for generations. When these people stop playing, they become coaches, administrators, managers and in many cases their children, who grow up knowing nothing different, come into the sport in the same way. What is created is an insular, territorial culture of deference to power, fear of speaking up and out and a siege mentality that forever prevented the outside world from being let inside hockey's ivory towers, and this culture festered without anyone able on the outside or inside to stop it.

Hockey is now being forced to reckon with itself over its own past, its own mythologized ethos and existence and its place in a world that is changing while it steadfastly refuses to.

Stories like those are far too common, and far too commonly stay behind closed doors, thanks to some of the most common tropes in hockey culture: players don't want to say anything for fear of being "a distraction", for fear of taking away from the team, and for fear of what happen when you do stand up to authority figures who aren't used to being crossed and aren't prepared to be.

In the case of the Marner-Babcock episode, one player did try to stand up and protect the player, and he paid the price by being scratched and ostracized:
Because hockey is such an insular world, with such little new blood being accepted into its inner circle, people who grew up used to this power dynamic end up going from players to coaches and managers, therefore continuing the cycle. In this cycle, players are then "programmed" to accept the culture they're in and play a role in it knowing the only way they can achieve their goals is by playing the game they're entered into at whatever cost.

That isn't how this sport has to be, but it is certainly what the culture around hockey has developed into. With these stories now becoming public, the fallout from them growing by the minute, and with certainly more to come, hockey and the people in charge of the game now have to address not just how it got to this point, but why, and how the ball of yarn can be unraveled.

Last spring, in the same plot of concrete outside Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, fans gathered to watch the Leafs and Raptors play in the playoffs, but the groups of fans doing so looked entirely different. For the first time in generations, hockey as a sport had to ask questions about why things looked so different, and why its position as a dominant cultural pillar in Canada was now under some doubt. The culture surrounding the game, and the people in charge of pushing that culture, now had to answer existential questions about themselves and their actions for the first time, and they're going to be under the microscope more and more as these stories multiply.

How can hockey begin to change, and how can the people in this sport begin to find the solutions to problems they never knew existed before? An important first step is to bring more people under the tent; people from outside hockey's small ecosystem. People with different backgrounds, experiences and ideas need to be not just on the ice, but in positions of power in hockey associations to change policies, to embrace new ideas and create channels for more people to brought in. Those people in power will have to cede some to others, because it's clear that many are not equipped to deal with the issues that lead to chronic abuses of power.
There is a line between tough love and abuse, and in hockey, that line has been blurred to the point where it is unrecognizable. With a new generation of players emerging having been empowered through social media, and seeing what their peers in other sports, particularly basketball, are capable of, they don't willingly subscribe to the hockey power dynamic without asking questions first. Those questions create tension, tension creates friction, and friction creates heat. In that heat, there is pressure, and the pressure might now finally cause changes in a sport where they are long overdue.

If new voices can be brought into places like Hockey Canada, USA Hockey, the NHL and the like, they can bring perspectives to a world that has had so few new ones, and those players who don't fit the typical hockey stereotype can now see that they belong just as much as their stereotypical peers.  That means more women, minorities and people who came into hockey from different angles have to be given the chance to lead and the chance to influence people in the sport who otherwise haven't know any different. Some of that is happening because modern players are so different than previous generations, but they cannot do this own their own.

More friction is to come, because people who have power don't give it up willingly, or easily. More prominent people in the sport might not come through the other side with their reputations clean anymore. But if this is the first step in hockey reckoning with itself, its past and its present, then perhaps finally its future will not be what it has so desperately clung to for so long.

When Robin Lehner told the world of his mental health struggles, the sport wrapped its arms around him in support. During the Humboldt bus crash, the hockey world cared for its own and showed why so many people come to this game again and again in spite of its costs. There is plenty of good in this sport and it needs to be amplified, and now is the best chance yet to celebrate that and push it forward.

Hockey own's mythology is being shattered. There is a chance to build something new in its place, and there's no better time than the present to build something new for this sport which desperately needs it.

Friday, October 25, 2019

The Human Element, or lack thereof

What drives progress? An insatiable determination to push boundaries, defy expectations and create something new, or making something existing better. Human beings are hard wired to do this; if not, we'd still be living in caves in Africa. We've always asked about what's in the next valley, what's over that ridge, and that is part of how we as a species have gone to the top of the food chain.

Our hunger to explore, push forward and cross boundaries is what has made us successful. That innate desire is manifested into different forms in the 21st century world, and in a sports context, that can be seen in explosion of analytics and new thinking into roster construction and evaluation. Perhaps no team has embodied that more than the Houston Astros, who went all in on analytics, new thinking, innovation and an "us against the world" mentality like no other. It has taken them from doormat to World Series champion and one of the best teams in the sport. But that has come with a cost.

Not only have they made enemies in the sport thanks to their approach and their attitude concerning it, but also because in that culture, they seem to lack something critical: empathy. The actions of their AGM Brandon Taubman, the subsequent defending of his actions and the sudden reversal of their stance only three days later by firing him unceremoniously on a World Series off day, has brought to light not just questions about the Astros culture, but the culture of modern sports and beyond: have we lost the human element?

There was no doubt that Taubman's actions, and subsequent lying about them, merited his firing. But, even in his guilt, he was enabled by those above him who will skate on, with nary a consequence other than some egg in their face. They created an environment in which concerns about the human condition are secondary at best. Trading for Roberto Osuna in the first place, in the middle of a 75 game suspension for domestic violence, was a mistake but one that in the Astros culture was never perceived as one. Osuna was an asset that the Astros could buy low on and use in their ultimate pursuit: winning. Whatever the costs were in this acquisition, they were viewed solely from a transactional context, not a human one. If he could get a few strikeouts and help Houston win, no one would remember, or bring up, that he may have committed a felonious offense.

If anyone brought up that the Astros were, as an organization, incapable of understanding human beings as human beings rather than just assets, or pawns on a chess board, they'd symbolically point to the rings and banners at Minute Maid Park as a defense. What does it matter that we're not "people person(s)" if we're winning? As it turned out, such a culture breeds contempt, defensiveness and a stunning lack of empathy, all borne out not just in Brandon Taubman's callous comments towards a group of female reporters, but the organization's even more callous and shallow response. The Astros were in this together, in this foxhole, fighting against the rest of baseball. More often not, they won. Except here, they were catastrophically defeated.

Tim Kurkjian has been talking about baseball's lack of feel for people in recent years as the league has gone more knee deep in numbers, information and innovation. For all of the transactions, numbers and information, baseball is still one human being with a bat in his hand at a time against nine other human beings trying to hit a ball, with the key there being human beings. As much as viewing sports from a transactional, asset management perspective has invigorated discussion about these sports, they have sucked away too much of what makes sports so unique in the human experience: human beings and their stories. With Taubman, Luhnow and Crane, there was never a concern about other human beings and their reaction to acquiring Roberto Osuna, and then using him as a shield to defend the organization from their own self-inflicted wounds. The only concerns were winning, but not just that, winning in their way.

Sports teams exist to win, of course. Some do find a way to re-invent the wheel and win "their way". But at what point does that mindset cost too much from a human perspective? At what point can the human cost no longer be ignored? When do people become empowered in this or any other sport not for their intellect, scouting acumen or innovative ideas, but for their empathy? Their understanding of someone else and ability to make them feel comfortable, to be their best selves? And as baseball has to deal with the fallout from the Tyler Skaggs situation with the Angels, a situation very different yet eerily similar to the one in Houston, one has to wonder whether that empathy that made this sport, and so many sports so inter-connected with our culture, our identity and our psyche, is where it needs to be,

One Astros player said this week, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan, "forget about the a-holes in the front office. This is about us". There may be no quote more apt in vividly describing this situation, and so many others in sports, than that. For all of the information, the knowledge, innovation and ideas percolating in player acquisition and evaluation brought over from business, science and elsewhere, sports are still human beings playing games.

Too often, we forget that. And when we do forget that, do we have the ability to see situations like the one Houston coming? And if we do, do we have the tools to prevent them from happening again?

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Reviewing my 2019 MLS Predictions and attempting to predict the playoffs

If you have noticed, my picks and predictions in recent times have been pretty terrible in all leagues. MLS is no different. Looking back at these predictions makes me want to cry, which is why I'm happy I put the disclaimer "here are some predictions that are sure to be wrong in May, let alone October". They were!

East Playoff Teams (My Predictions): ATL, NYRB, DC, PHI, CLB, MTL, NYCFC
East Playoff Teams (Actual): NYCFC, ATL, PHI, TOR, DC, NYRB, NE

Toronto and New England get in over Columbus and Montreal. Not as bad as it could have been.

West Playoff Teams (My Predictions): SKC, LAFC, POR, SEA, LAG, RSL, MIN
West Playoff Teams (Actual): LAFC, SEA, RSL, MIN, LAG, POR, FCD

So only one team wrong, but it was the one I predicted to win the Supporter's Shield. That was #CCLFever. But the other playoff teams, including the Loons, I actually got right. I'm mildly proud of myself.

Award Predictions: 
MVP: Zlatan (he played really well! But Carlos Vela had a historically good season)
Coach: Jim Curtin (he could certainly win it. But how can it not be Bob Bradley?)
Defender: Walker Zimmerman (he would have won it if the season was 20 games long. Ike Opara did).
Rookie: Andre Shinyashiki (I got one right!)
Golden Boot: Zlatan (Carlos Vela did set the single season goal scoring record)
Comeback: Jordan Morris (more than likely)

I did predict Sporting Kansas City to beat the Red Bulls in MLS Cup 2019, which was extremely wrong and the playoffs haven't even happened yet. So here I am trying again, and sure to get it wrong:

East:
2) Atlanta United over 7) New England
3) Philadelphia over 6) New York Red Bulls
4) Toronto FC over 5) DC United

4) Toronto FC over 1) NYCFC
2) Atlanta United over 3) Philadelphia

2) Atlanta United over 4) Toronto FC

West:
2) Seattle over 7) FC Dallas
6) Portland over 3) Real Salt Lake
5) LA Galaxy over 4) Minnesota

2) Seattle over 6) Portland
1) LAFC over 5) LA Galaxy

1) LAFC over 2) Seattle

MLS Cup 2019: LAFC over Atlanta United 3-1

If my playoff predictions in baseball are any indication, good luck to these two teams, especially Atlanta United, who might not be immune to the Atlanta sports curse after all.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

2019-20 NHL Season Predictions

October is the best month of the year if you're one of the few people who still clicks on this blog, because you get prediction columns and reviews of prediction columns. There's no better content than that, right? When you check back in April, be sure to take it easy on me, because I might be less wrong than someone else, I hope.

Metropolitan Division:
1. Washington
2. Carolina
3. Pittsburgh
4. New York Rangers 
5. New Jersey
6. Philadelphia
7. Columbus
8. New York Islanders

There is no more egalitarian division in hockey than the Metro. Every team thinks they have a good chance at the playoffs, and they're all right. There are plenty of reasons for fatalists to satiate their own fears about each of these teams though. 

Washington probably has the fewest flaws of any in this division. While their playoff voodoo returned even after winning the Cup, they're still a dominant regular season team. Some of the depth pieces have shuffled, but the core remains the same, though one year older. Since there's no one that can truly contend on that level with them, they're favorites. Carolina has made plenty of moves, and while it's unlikely they're replicating last year's playoff run, they're still incredibly deep, especially on the back end. It's hard to see a team this deep missing the postseason. Pittsburgh is on the decline, and whether it's gradual or sudden is still an open question. With Crosby and Malkin, they're still a playoff team, though their supporting cast continues to decline.

Everyone else is fighting for a wild card that will be hotly contested. The Rangers have made some significant upgrades with Kaapo Kakko, Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox, but they're still not great defensively and many of their young prospects haven't developed in the smoothest of ways. New Jersey certainly went for flash in acquiring PK Subban and Nikita Gusev along with drafting Jack Hughes, but are they deep enough to succeed during the long grind of 82 games, and do they have any hope in net? Philadelphia made plenty of moves on the ice and behind the bench, but it all doesn't add up to very much being different. Columbus is down Panarin, Duchene and Bobrovsky, and while they believe in their kids, can anyone believe in their goaltending? And the Islanders added no one except a goalie to replace one that nearly won the Vezina last season and probably should still be there. Is the system truly king?

Atlantic Division:

1. Tampa Bay
2. Toronto
3. Boston
4. Florida (WC)
5. Montreal (WC)
6. Buffalo
7. Detroit
8. Ottawa

Unlike the Metro, the Atlantic is relatively straightforward. Last year's top three will be the top three again, there will be two teams fighting for a playoff spot, and everyone else is rebuilding to some degree. The order in which the Atlantic's top three will be slotted is a matter of debate. Tampa is still the class of the league, but will what happened in the series against Columbus hang over their heads? We may not find out until April, but the roster is still fairly loaded in spite of the cap crunch they had this summer, so a big drop off isn't expected. Toronto will score a ton of goals, but they may also give up a ton. Have their moves made them considerably better than the team of the last three years? That is also a matter of debate. They will have enough this year to nudge the Bruins out of home ice in their inevitable playoff series. The Bruins are still the Bruins, which means they'll be a tough out every night.

Florida spent big bucks to end their losing drought, and with the rest of the East taking a slight step back, and the Panthers adding one of the league's best goalies and coaches, that should be enough to plug a leaky ship and guide it back to the postseason, though the Panthers always find a way to underwhelm. Montreal got career years out of multiple forwards last year and it wasn't enough to make the postseason, and many of their hopes will ride on young centers Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki if they are to get back to the postseason. It will not be easy. Buffalo has a new coach with a great pedigree, but they don't have a great blueline or goaltending tandem yet. They're closer than they've been to the postseason, but they're both not there yet. Detroit and Ottawa are both in the nascent stages of long rebuilds, and while the long term is bright, the present is concerned with lottery balls.

Central Division:

1. Nashville
2. Colorado
3. Dallas
4. St. Louis (WC) 
5. Winnipeg
6. Chicago
7. Minnesota

The NHL's toughest division holds its title for another season, because it holds the defending champs and some of the league's toughest regular season outs. Nashville has regressed since it's 2017 trip to the Stanley Cup Final, but adding Matt Duchene should stem the tide a little, and the loss of PK Subban is offset by the arrival of Dante Fabbro. The Avs are a team everyone loves, and for good reason. They have an incredible future with great players for the present and future. They will be one of the fastest and exciting teams this year, but they had fewer wins last year than Arizona, who only had 86 points. To go from that to Cup favorite is not easy. Dallas added a couple of Pacific division veterans to help a defensively sound team go over the top in the postseason after last year's Game 7 heartbreak, and they'll be good enough to certainly test the best.

The defending champs made their first big move by trading for Justin Faulk, giving up a solid defenseman in Joel Edmunson, and a prospect in Dominic Bokk. Faulk is not much better if at all than what they gave up. But they are still the same aggressive forechecking team they were a season ago, and if Jordan Binnington is still the same goaltender from his run last season, they will be more consistent. They're not quite as talented as their rivals, hence why they're a Wild Card team, though they're still a playoff lock. 

Winnipeg's offseason from hell has taken a bite out of what was a team set up to be a juggernaut. If Dustin Byfuglien doesn't return, then their blueline is relying an awful lot on this year's first round pick, Ville Heinola. It looks to be a fatal flaw. While they have plenty of scoring punch, their depth is also incredibly sketchy. They will not make the playoffs without some substantial additions. Chicago scored a boatload of goals last year, and also gave up a boatload. Adding Robin Lehner, Calvin De Haan and Olli Maata might not do enough to counteract all those goals against, though. Minnesota did get rid of their problem GM, but this is still an old team with an old core that is only getting older, with a prospect pipeline that is far from encouraging.

Pacific Division:
1. Vegas
2. Calgary
3. San Jose
4. Arizona (WC)
5. Vancouver
6. Edmonton
7. Anaheim
8. Los Angeles

Watching the Vegas Golden Knights has been an experience in the last two seasons, from their Cup run to how they went out last year. They are, in a weak division, the strongest team, even if their blueline is shallow and Marc-Andre Fleury is being asked to do too much. Calgary, though they traded for Milan Lucic, still have plenty of speed and skill up front with a very good blueline to boot. But can they keep the puck out of the net? It doesn't seem like there's optimism on that front. Speaking of bad goaltending, San Jose had the worst in the league last year and still made it to the Conference Final! They also played with a very broken Erik Karlsson too. But they don't have Joe Pavelski anymore, and their depth from years past is gone. They're still a playoff team, but do they have enough to challenge like they've been able to?

Perhaps this pick is aspirational, but I really want the Coyotes to make the playoffs. I like the moves that they have made, and Rick Tocchet got a broken, injured group to within earshot of the postseason. He is also a Phil Kessel whisperer, and getting him to score is what the Coyotes desperately need. If some of their young talent like Clayton Keller, Barrett Hayton and others finally come good, they can get in. Vancouver will challenge them because of Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Quinn Hughes, but the veterans are what will let them down, because they just don't have enough good ones. Edmonton has McDavid and Draisaitl, but little else, and there's very little reason to believe that Ken Holland and Dave Tippett can make lemonade without any lemons to use. Anaheim is finally rebuilding, and some of their young forwards have promise. They also have John Gibson, who could win the Vezina on a better team. But their great defense pipeline is now barren. The Kings went sour gradually, and then suddenly, and now they're in a full rebuild mode again. Alexis Lafrieniere would look good in black and silver.

Playoffs:
Eastern Conference:

Washington (M1) over Florida (WC1) in 7
Carolina (M2) over Pittsburgh (M2) in 5
Tampa (A1) over Montreal (WC2) in 6
Toronto (A2) over Boston (A3) in 7

Carolina (M2) over Washington (M1) in 7
Tampa (A1) over Toronto (A2) in 7

Tampa (A1) over Carolina (M2) in 5

Western Conference:

St. Louis (WC1) over Nashville (C1) in 6
Colorado (C2) over Dallas (C3) in 6
Vegas (P1) over Arizona (WC2) in 5
Calgary (P2) over San Jose (P3) in 6

Colorado (C2) over St. Louis (WC1) in 6
Vegas (P1) over Calgary (P2) in 6

Vegas (P1) over Colorado (C2) in 6

Stanley Cup Final:

Tampa over Vegas in 6

Awards:
Hart: Nathan MacKinnon (COL)
Art Ross: Connor McDavid (EDM)
Rocket Richard: Alex Ovechkin (WSH)
Norris: Victor Hedman (TB)
Vezina: Frederik Andersen (TOR)
Calder: Kaapo Kakko (NYR)
Jack Adams: Rick Tocchet (ARZ)
First Coach Fired: Paul Maurice (WPG)

Happy Hockey Season! I hope I didn't pick one of your favorite teams and favorite players to do well. 

Monday, September 30, 2019

2019 MLB Season Predictions in Review + Playoff Predictions

More cheap content for this old blog with the same design it has had for eight plus years, but is the perfect place for said content that doesn't fit anywhere else and is fun to write up. How badly did I do with my 2019 MLB Predictions? Badly, let's say.

Actual standings in parenthesis.

NL East:
1. Philadelphia (ATL)
2. Washington (WSH)
3. Atlanta (NYM)
4. New York Mets (PHI)
5. Miami (MIA)

Atlanta is becoming a quiet juggernaut with a great young lineup and rotation. They've won the NL East for the second straight year and are second favorites to win the NL. Philly didn't have the rotation and bullpen to buoy all the money they spent this offseason, and Gabe Kapler's seat is getting toasty. Washington did end up making the playoffs after their awful start after all.

AL East:
1. New York Yankees (NYY)
2. Boston (TB)
3. Tampa Bay (BOS)
4. Toronto (TOR)
5. Baltimore (BAL)

In spite of the litany of injuries the Yankees endured, they still won 103 games. It truly is a remarkable achievement. Boston's World Series defense went poorly, like most of theirs have since 2004, and Tampa Bay continues to do the absolute most with the least to make the playoffs again. No wonder everyone in the league wants everyone in their front office. The back end of the division was as bad as predicted.

NL Central:
1.  St. Louis (STL)
2.  Chicago Cubs (MIL)
3.  Milwaukee (CHC)
4.  Cincinnati (CIN)
5.  Pittsburgh (PIT)

Saying the Cubs were long in the tooth turned out to be prescient after their September collapse, which allowed the Redbirds to sneak up and win the NL Central while getting Milwaukee back into the postseason minus a potential league MVP in Christian Yelich. Joe Maddon is gone, so the Cubs in many ways are going back to the drawing board. The NL Central was the most equal division this year, and some big runs, positive or negative, drew the lines for the playoffs.

AL Central:
1. Cleveland (MIN)
2. Minnesota (CLE)
3. Chicago White Sox (CHW)
4. Kansas City (KC)
5. Detroit (DET)

Hitting the most home runs in a single season in MLB history helped propel the Twins back to the postseason for the second time in three years, but they have to play the Yankees again. They had a little more consistency everywhere than the Indians, who had the same 93 wins they did a year ago, but last year that was enough to win them the AL Central, and this year they just missed the playoffs with a historically high win total for a team to miss. They would have won the NL Central, for instance. A frugal offseason really did cost them. Everyone else ranged from scuffling to outright tanking and historically bad.

NL West:
1. Los Angeles (LAD)
2. Colorado (ARZ)
3. San Diego (SF)
4. Arizona (SD)
5. San Francisco (COL)

The Dodgers are still the Dodgers, and everyone else is playing catch up. Arizona's rebuild on the fly allowed them to have a positive season with a platform to build on for the future. San Diego and Colorado both underwhelmed in a major way after their preseason expectations, and that cost San Diego manager Andy Green his job. It doesn't look like anyone is challenging the Dodgers any time soon.

AL West:
1. Houston (HOU)
2. LA Angels (OAK)
3. Oakland (TEX)
4. Seattle (LAA)
5. Texas (SEA)

The Astros are still the Astros, and no one gave them much of a run in the AL West again. The A's continue to do quite a bit with not very much and make the playoffs again, but it's going to be tough to see them winning a series if they do make it to play their division rivals. Mike Trout is still being let down by everyone around him, and perhaps Joe Maddon is the solution to that problem. Everyone else is rebuilding to varying degrees, and the order is shuffling deck chairs.

Preseason Playoffs Predictions:
NL: 1. LAD 2. PHI 3. STL 4. WSH 5. CHC
AL: 1. NYY 2. HOU 3. CLE 4. BOS 5. LAA

Actual Playoff Order:
NL: 1. LAD 2. ATL 3. STL 4. WSH 5. MIL
AL: 1. HOU 2. NYY 3. MIN 4. OAK 5. TB

5 out of 10 playoff teams predicted isn't great! When the league is so clearly sorted into teams that are trying and teams that aren't, those predictions feel even worse! But there are only a few teams who really failed to live up to the hype this year, which include Boston, Philly and Colorado.

Preseason Award Predictions (with comments):
NL MVP: Paul Goldschmidt (Going to be Cody Bellinger, could have been Yelich if he didn't get hurt)
AL MVP: Aaron Judge (Spent too much time injured. Going to be Mike Trout again because he's simply not human)
NL Cy Young: Max Scherzer (Jacob DeGrom outpitched him again, but he'll be in the conversation)
AL Cy Young: Chris Sale (Like the rest of the Red Sox, he flopped. It'll be either Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole who both had super seasons)
NL Rookie: Fernando Tatis Jr. (Pete Alonso made history every time he took an at bat, and Tatis had too many injuries)
AL Rookie: Vlad Guerrero Jr. (not quite there yet. Yordan Alvarez was insane for the Astros)
NL Manager: Dave Martinez (he took his team back from the brink, but he got them there in the first place. Craig Counsell has does another good job with the Brewers, but Brian Snitker deserves love for the machine he's built in Atlanta)
AL Manager: Aaron Boone (slam dunk considering the injuries his team has gone through)

New Playoff Predictions:

NL: 
Wild Card Game: Nationals over Brewers

NLDS: Braves over Cardinals in 4
            Dodgers over Nationals in 4

NLCS: Braves over Dodgers in 7

AL:
Wild Card Game: Rays over A's

ALDS: Astros over Rays in 3
            Yankees over Twins in 4

ALCS: Yankees over Astros in 7

World Series: Yankees over Braves in 6

These will end up going wrong too, I bet.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

2019 NFL Season Predictions

The National Football League, the world's greatest reality show, has returned for it's 100th season. Nothing in the NFL is ever short of storylines, intrigue and drama, and this season should be no different. Is this the year someone other than the Patriots dominates the AFC (don't bet on it)? Is this the year where the Cleveland Browns awake from their decades long slumber of irrelevance (more than possible)? Is this the year that I finally do somewhat decently in this predictions piece? Probably not, but that's not going to stop me from trying!

AFC East:
1. New England: 12-4
2. Buffalo: 8-8
3. New York Jets: 7-9
4. Miami: 3-13

Since 2001, the Patriots have failed to win the AFC East only twice. In that time, they've won six Super Bowls. With a league that is more even than ever, that is truly an incredible accomplishment. The defending champs are a little weaker this year without Gronk and irreplaceable center David Andrews, but Bill Belichick and company always find players to plug in those gaps, and they do it better than anyone else. While it looks like the AFC East might be finally catching up, that Brady guy, if he's still healthy, is hard to beat.

Buffalo has a solid roster behind Josh Allen, who I'm personally not a fan of, but his skillset works well with the up-and-coming squad they have. They aren't quite contenders yet though. The same can be same of the Jets and Adam Gase, even though the new coach pulled off an amazing coup to get front office control after previous management threw money at anyone who would listen this offseason. Gase has the chops though. And for his old team, they're tanking. Watch Alabama and Oregon games instead, Dolphins fans, your next QB is on one of those two teams.

NFC East:
1. Philadelphia: 12-4
2. Dallas: 9-7
3. New York Giants: 5-11
4. Washington: 5-11

I'm not going out on a limb when I say the Eagles are one of the best run teams in the league. They always find a way to acquire, develop and manage not just talent, but assets. Even when their franchise QB gets hurt, and the Super Bowl MVP backup leaves, they still can feel decently confident in the roster they've built. There are few spots where they are thin on their roster, and that depth is enough to pull away from the pack.

Dallas' drama is going to hurt them at some point, and they took advantage of an incredibly mediocre division last year to win it. With the Eagles reloading, that's not happening this year. They are solid, especially in the trenches, but do they have the gamebreaker needed to take them over the top? That's a question yet to be answered. Both the Giants and Washington are in similar spots with talent deficient rosters and rookie QB's waiting in the wings. It's a matter of when not if both of them start. Both have also been chronically mismanaged to boot. There is very little separating them, including how sports talk radio phone lines will explode with "when should Haskins and Jones start" takes.

AFC North:
1. Pittsburgh: 10-6
2. Cleveland: 9-7
3. Baltimore: 8-8
4. Cincinnati: 4-12

It's been 30 years since the Cleveland Browns won their division, and it feels like now more than ever is their best chance to. They had a spectacular offseason in bringing in loads of talent, and with a QB primed for a major jump in Baker Mayfield, it seems like this could be the year football in Cleveland is finally back. But not so fast my friends... the Steelers are still here. With everyone discounting them after the drama from last season, could it be that Pittsburgh is in a promising position now, one where they are the underdogs? Possibly. Replacing Brown and Bell is hard to do, but they basically had to do that last season and still nearly made the playoffs, and their defense is better now too. At some point, the pressure and expectations may weigh heavy on the young Browns shoulders.

Lamar Jackson took over towards the end of last season and lit up the league with inspired play running, but not so much throwing. The struggles in the Wild Card game against the Chargers might be an omen for 2019, especially because they've suffered through a major talent drain. Suggs, Mosley among others are not there, and that is going to catch up with them at some point. Jackson must show improvement as a passer, especially so the Ravens can win critical division toss-up games. And as for the Bengals, the Sean McVay coaching tree didn't drop a great apple here, with Zac Taylor struggling to build a staff and a healthy roster, especially with another awful AJ Green injury. Don't look now, but the Bengals are also very much in the Tua/Justin sweepstakes.

NFC North:
1. Green Bay: 11-5
2. Minnesota: 10-6
3. Chicago: 8-8
4. Detroit: 6-10

Matt LaFleur, another Sean McVay coaching tree apple, tries to ripen a bunch of stale Packers in cheese country. Aaron Rodgers seems on board, for now, and with that, plus a heavily revamped and revitalized defense, are the Packers back to being favorites again in this division? Seems so. Minnesota thought they were one great QB away last season, and they were right, because Kirk Cousins is not a great QB. But the offensive line did fail him, and they couldn't really run the ball nearly as well as they should have considering their talent. Some of that will regress back to "normal", which should make Vikings a playoff team.

There's something incredibly eerie about these Bears, namely that they remind me of last year's Jaguars. A team with a dominant defense that did things that are probably not replicable, and a QB that did barely enough to let the defense do what it needed to do. Mitch Trubisky should shudder at hearing Blake Bortles comparisons. Jacksonville finished 5-11 last season, and that was because the offense totally fell apart. That's not likely in Chicago, but some of those games that defense won in Chicago last year won't happen again this year. As for the Lions, Matt Patricia finds his team in limbo again. Not truly bad enough to tank, but not good enough to fully compete in the NFC for the playoffs. How much longer can that last?

AFC South:
1. Houston: 9-7
2. Tennessee: 8-8
3. Jacksonville: 7-9
4. Indianapolis: 5-11

Jeff Fisher, he very much the most AFC South coach of all time, said he wouldn't settle for 7-9 BS as coach of the Rams. His old division is very much the embodiment of 7-9 BS, with every team having a fatal flaw, but not so fatal that it could cost them the division. Houston (Bill O'Brien) traded away their entire future for an offensive lineman that they desperately needed in Laremy Tunsil, but they massively overpaid for, right after trading away former first overall pick Jadaveon Clowney for peanuts. But because Houston has DeShaun Watson, De'Andre Hopkins and JJ Watt, they may have enough to squeak the division out, even though they've mortgaged their future and could easily fall off again.

Tennessee is stuck with a QB in Marcus Mariota that is mediocre and unimpressive, which is also true of his skill position players, but buoyed by a solid defense, they should still be in contention, but just. The Jaguars realized their Blake Bortles mistake and overpaid Nick Foles to be their savior, and since he's a better QB than Bortles, and their defense is still one of the best in football, that should mean the Jaguars take advantage in this division, right? Speaking from experience, trusting them is incredibly difficult and finding consistency is even harder. They'll be better, but not playoffs better. And no matter what people say about Jacoby Brissett, he cannot lift the Colts to the playoffs, even though the roster around him is solid. An off year to draft/luck into a good QB might just be what's needed in Indy.

NFC South:
1. New Orleans: 12-4
2. Atlanta: 10-6
3. Carolina: 8-8
4. Tampa Bay: 6-10

After two of the most heartbreaking playoff exits in NFL history, the Saints try to regroup for one last ride with Drew Brees, who even through his Bayou superpowers might be starting to fade just a little. But with the talent around him, that won't hurt the Saints just yet. The postseason will once again define them. Atlanta lost practically their entire defense to injury last year, a defense that was extremely solid when put together. Matt Ryan also had a historically good season and is never really given his due. The Falcons will be back in the postseason this year.

Cam Newton is a beat up man, and while when healthy he is fantastic, he's just not healthy all that much anymore. They're still light in depth on offense, and that defense just isn't what it once was. They're not bad, but the NFC is too crowded for a team like them to make the postseason. Bruce Arians will try to revive Jameis Winston's career, and he's got a good chance of doing that with his offensive know-how. But their defense is awful, and no offense can outpace that bad a defense for long.

AFC West:
1. Kansas City: 13-3
2. Los Angeles Chargers: 11-5
3. Oakland: 5-11
4. Denver: 4-12

Kansas City has the league's MVP, some of its most explosive offensive weapons, and a thoroughly revitalized and improved defense. What's not to like? They're going to be one of the fastest teams in the league, and speed kills, especially with Pat Mahomes in control. There are some concerns at running back, but adding LeSean McCoy might just address those issues. How defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo holds up might be the difference between winning the Super Bowl and coming up short again.

Once again, the Chargers are solid all around, even without Melvin Gordon, Derwin James and Russell Okung. It's a testament to how well built that roster is. However, that game against the Patriots in the playoffs showed last year that they may have bumped up against the glass ceiling and have no further up to go. They're a no doubt playoff team, but they're not quite championship material. Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock have tried to drastically revamp the Raiders, and it feels like this is a pause year before moving into taxpayer paradise near Paradise, Nevada next year. They added big names, but the roster, particularly on defense, is shallow. The Broncos still think Joe Flacco is the same QB that beat them in the playoffs seven years ago, which isn't true. They have an OK defense, but this is a team primed for the bottom to really fault out. If not for some upper management issues, would John Elway still be running football ops?

NFC West:
1. Los Angeles Rams: 11-5
2. Seattle: 9-7
3. San Francisco: 7-9
4. Arizona: 5-11

Sean McVay himself still knows what he's doing, and even with a banged up Todd Gurley, they're still the team to beat in the NFC West. The Rams are not quite as deep as they once were, particularly on defense, but they have more than enough to win the division for a third straight year. Seattle has Russell Wilson, which makes them more than good enough to compete so long as he stays upright, and now they have a fearsome pass rusher in Jadaveon Clowney, but they may not have enough wholesale like some of their NFC playoff competitors now.

If Jimmy Garoppolo stays healthy, the 49ers have a chance to make the playoffs, especially considering how decent some of the backups looked last year. But they have too many other teams to pass to get there. Kyler Murray will be fun to watch this season when he has his moments of magic, but there are too many concerns about the rest of that roster, and the coaching staff, to get them beyond the basement.

AFC Playoff Order:
1. Kansas City
2. New England
3. Pittsburgh
4. Houston
5. LA Chargers
6. Cleveland

NFC Playoff Order:
1. New Orleans
2. Philadelphia
3. LA Rams
4. Green Bay
5. Atlanta
6. Minnesota

AFC Playoff Predictions:

3. Pittsburgh over 6. Cleveland
5. LA Chargers over 4. Houston

1. Kansas City over 5. LA Chargers
2. New England over 3. Pittsburgh

1. Kansas City over 2. New England

NFC Playoff Predictions:

3. LA Rams over 6. Minnesota
5. Atlanta over 4. Green Bay

1. New Orleans over 5. Atlanta
2. Philadelphia over 3. LA Rams

2. Philadelphia over 1. New Orleans

Super Bowl LIV: Kansas City over Philadelphia 34-27

The Andy Reid Bowl would pit two well constructed teams against one another, and two teams with so many connections from the front office down to the field. It would be a triumph of roster building, planning and coaching. Kansas City has just enough to squeak by and end their 50 year championship drought.

Award Predictions:
MVP: Patrick Mahomes (KC)
OPOY: Julio Jones (ATL)
DPOY: Aaron Donald (LAR)
OROY: Miles Sanders (PHI)
DROY: Josh Allen (JAX)
Comeback: Jimmy Garoppolo (SF)
Coach: Freddie Kitchens (CLE)

Sorry to everyone in Philadelphia and Kansas City in advance for these predictions, since it will inevitably jinx them. Enjoy the new season!

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Andrew Luck and Moral Courage

In professional sports, almost no one gets to retire on their own terms. Even for these exceptional athletes, the harsh realities of professional sports forces players to leave their games far earlier than anyone would want to. To be good enough to retire on your own accord is a great luxury afforded to very few.

Andrew Luck is one of those few lucky athletes. His powers and potential seemed limitless from the moment he stepped foot on a college football field, let alone in Indianapolis. Because of that, it seemed like his decision to retire would come long in the future, with rings on his fingers and with a gold jacket waiting for him one state over. But it came, shockingly, when he was still at the height of his powers, as a Super Bowl contender and one of the best quarterbacks in football.

Football is a grueling game. Getting physically ready to play becomes a task in of itself, and Andrew Luck's injury history is proof positive of that.


It's this cycle of pain and rehab, pain and rehab that never ceased which broke Andrew Luck's infectious love for football. He is a player who congratulated opposing defensive linemen who sacked with a big smile on his face, and almost never showed frustration. His happy go-lucky nature almost seemed misplaced in the cold, sometimes heartless NFL of today. But that happiness and childlike joy hid the real pain he went through; the pain of having to do the same thing over and over, while never getting a different result.

He was also, in another word, wordly. Football was his anything, but not his everything. He told Zak Keefer of the Athletic last year after the blowout loss to Kansas City in the playoffs that "if my worth as a human was going to be tied into how I did- the result of a performance in a football game- then I was going to have, pardon my French, a really s***ty life."

Luck might be one of the few football players who has ever earned the right to say that. Too often we see athletes as machines, robots, assets, pieces on a chess board in the game that has become so much a part of our collective self-worth, our identity and our sense of belonging. But human beings, with feelings, ambitions and complex emotions, are far more than that. Luck seemed keenly aware of it, even though he would never show it. He could proudly exclaim to the world he still owned a flip phone and people would not knock him for it because he's Andrew Luck.

So many people in life work their rear ends off to do what they love for a living, and so few get to do it. That love makes it easy to go through the ups and downs of the work of the job itself. Luck started to feel that football, specifically the grueling grind it takes physically and mentally just to play, was becoming work, which obfuscated the love of the game. He is certainly not the only one who feels this way in professional sports right now, but so many of them do not have the luxury of being a player who can dictate their own terms and say confidently, though still somewhat shaken, that this life isn't everything.

Very few professional athletes are wired like Andrew Luck, but so many go through those same experiences as he did. Too many never get the chance to say what he said, not just because of the money involved, but because these games were their entire life from practically birth until now. Giving it up means shifting to a world without control, which these players have given everything to acquire. As physically draining as these sports can be, the mental grind of just getting to the games  can be even more grueling. And it is this affect that causes players to go through not just the physical labor of professional sports, but the emotional labor too.

For Andrew Luck to retire now with seemingly so much more to give is shocking, but also comforting. He recognized something that so many of his peers may never will, and so many wish they could. While the life of a professional athlete is one so many of us lay people would give everything for, there is something so wonderful about living life on your own terms. By the time a professional athlete reaches the pinnacle, they are often not in control anymore, becoming slaves to the game they love because they have nothing else to fall back on. Andrew Luck proved to the world that even at the very top of the top of the pyramid of professional sports, there is another way forward.

Perhaps Luck's decision offers a path forward for other athletes in a similar position, even though they are far less wealthy. Professional sports are not the be all and end all of life, even though for so many it feels like it. Short term pain for long term gain for many means playing through injuries and giving everything just to get another game check, but thanks to Andrew Luck, it may now mean that while giving up the game you love can be gut-wrenching, the other side of the mountain that is life can be more fulfilling even while doing so.

Mark Twain said that "it is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and yet moral courage so rare." Physical courage is a professional sports hallmark, yet moral courage, the courage of one's convictions, isn't. Andrew Luck showed moral courage to stand up for himself, against the whims of the professional sports machine and all that goaded him back into it, to live life on his terms, not someone else's.

His fellow professionals see that intrinsically, applauding publicly while silently nodding, many wishing they could do the same thing.

And on't we all wish we can do what he did, go out on our own terms to live life as we wish we could, confident in our own sense of self to do so?