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Friday, September 4, 2015

2015 NFL Season Predictions

After an offseason filled with talk about deflated balls, deflated balls and more deflated balls, it's nice to talk about inflated ones for once. The NFL's golden season begins with hopefully (for their sake) far fewer off the field bits of hilarity meant for South Park and talk almost exclusively about the game on the field. And if you've read my MLB season predictions for this past year, you'll be aware that what you see below might not mean much if anything at all. Get hyped.

NFC East: 1) DAL 11-5 2) PHI 9-7 3) NYG 8-8 4) WSH 4-12

It's entirely conceivable that the Eagles run away with this division like they may run away from their opponents with their offensive pace. Their defense is light years better than it was a season ago, many thanks to the Seahawks connections now percolating in the secondary. The biggest question is still Sam Bradford and his durability. If the offense puts him in harm's way, the Eagles season could go down the drain in a millisecond. Dallas is a more consistent team even though their lack of running game is a concern. Defensively they should be solid, and they're more likely to be consistent. The Giants lack of any defense will outweigh their ability to throw the ball to Victor Cruz and Odell Beckham and in Washington... does anyone have a sitcom laugh track I could borrow?

AFC East: 1) NE 12-4 2) MIA 9-7 3) NYJ 8-8 4) BUF 8-8

Now that Tom Brady isn't suspended for the first four games of the season... he and Bill Belichick may rain hellfire on the entirety of their schedule. Sure their secondary is markedly worse than it was a season ago, but no one doubts the ability of the Patriots staff to mend that quickly. And so long as Tom Brady has his weapons on offense, they'll be too much for everyone else. The Dolphins have a stellar defensive line, underrated QB and the potential to break out at long last. But it's coaching that holds them back. Todd Bowles has been dealt a shaky hand already, which will put the Jets too far behind the eight-ball to succeed this season. Ground and pound can work in theory, but the Bills have already been hit with numerous injuries to key players. And does anyone seriously believe in Tyrod Taylor?

NFC North: 1) GB 11-5 2) DET 10-6 3) MIN 9-7 4) CHI 5-11

In spite of Jordy Nelson's injury, the Packers still are favorites in this division. Even with the competition getting better behind them, the division title will still stay in Green Bay because Aaron Rodgers is still Aaron Rodgers. So long as the Packers have him, they'll be eternal division favorites. The Lions have some adjustments to make on defense, but a unit that was surprisingly one of the league's best last season will still be good enough to keep Detroit in the playoff hunt. With Adrian Peterson back, the Vikings could well be the apple of everyone's eye, especially if Teddy Bridgewater takes the next step towards greatness. And for the Bears, the quicker Jay Cutler is out of that building, the better, but the biggest problems may be on defense. Yeesh.

AFC North: 1) PIT 10-6 2) BAL 10-6 3) CIN 9-7 4) CLE 5-11

This might be the NFL's toughest division to predict. Any one of three teams could easily come out on top. The Steelers are not the Steel Curtain Steelers of old thanks to an electrifying offense that can still do massive damage even in the early weeks of the season when the offense will be shorthanded. If the defense is passable, they win the division. Both the Ravens and Bengals are solid if unspectacular, although the Bengals perpetually being one year away doesn't elicit much confidence. It seems that the Ravens despite their drafting prowess might have just a little too much to replace this season to win the division, which once again will come down to Steelers/Ravens games to decide it. And in Cleveland well... wait on the Cavs.

NFC South: 1) ATL 9-7 2) CAR 8-8 3) NO 7-9 4) TB 6-10

Remember what I said about the AFC North just above? Scratch that. The NFC South is the toughest division to forecast. Carolina was the favorite thanks to their improving defense and streamlined offense, but then Kelvin Benjamin was lost for the season. The receiving corps are incredibly unproven, and Jonathan Stewart is still made of glass. The Saints no longer have Jimmy Graham and underwent some serious changes in an attempt to stay fresh, but their overpayment of some players in free agency has hamstrung the bottom end of the roster, and there just might not be enough across the board. Jameis Winston and the Bucs will have some growing pains, but there is promise for the future in Tampa Bay. The first team to nine wins may well snatch the division, and right now the quickest to that punch may well be Dan Quinn's Falcons. He has a revitalized defense to tune up, and still has Julio Jones and Roddy White as weapons for Matt Ryan. Honestly, picking teams out of a hat might be a more effective process than what I've just tried to do.

AFC South: 1) IND 13-3 2) HOU 8-8 3) JAX 7-9 4) TEN 4-12

In contrast to the last two divisions, which were very difficult to predict, this one is the exact opposite. The Colts may well wrap up the division officially in November. They have no challengers, and an easy schedule to fatten up their record for possible home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Andrew Luck has lead the Colts to consistent playoff improvements in each of his three seasons, so is the Super Bowl next? Quite possibly. There are problem spots for sure, especially on the offensive line and some spots on defense, but this division won't challenge them. Houston has the defense for sure, but Brian Hoyer as your QB, no Arian Foster because of injury and almost no weapons at receiver or TE to speak of? I don't care if JJ Watt is Superman, he can't do it all on his own. So many are predicting doom and gloom for Jacksonville, and maybe it is my eternal optimism, but if Blake Bortles improves even slightly the Jags will double their win total. They are still young almost everywhere, but if they can find a bit of a pass rush they may be fun to watch. The Titans are perpetually three years away, and Marcus Mariota has plenty of work to do to get this team into even respectability this season with a lack of weapons on offense and a porous defense on the other side.

NFC West: 1) SEA 12-4 2) ARZ 10-6 3) STL 8-8 4) SF 5-11

Even without Kam Chancellor and some of their other important pieces, the Seahawks are still the NFC pace setters. Somehow, they may be even better on offense with Jimmy Graham in the fold, and Russel Wilson isn't just a game manager, if you were concerned. The offensive line might bite them down the line, but even with a tough schedule, that seems unlikely until the bitter end. Arizona was the best team in football last season when Carson Palmer was healthy, so it makes sense to say that with him healthy now the Cardinals will be back? That offensive line is very concerning, and the defense is naturally going to take a step back with attrition on the coaching staff and on the field. But they are still a playoff contender for sure. The Rams are going to finally get a chance to see what all of their supposedly impressive drafting has done for them if Nick Foles gives them enough on offense. They may pound other teams into the dirt, but if Foles can't lead the offense, it'll be another typical Jeff Fisher season. Don't count the 49ers out, however. Out of the race for the #1 overall pick, that is. What an absolute tire fire. It's quite possible that the last biggest exodus humanity has ever seen was the biblical Exodus story.

AFC West:

1) DEN 11-5 2) KC 9-7 3) SD 9-7 4) OAK 5-11

Denver is going to have some stiff competition for the division this year. Both San Diego and Kansas City have good chances to knock the Broncos off their perch. Gary Kubiak might not be the best coach, but he should help stabilize a team that seemed to wobble a bit towards the end of last season. Don't sleep on that defense either, especially after how they shut down Seattle and Houston in early preseason games. Speaking of defense, the Kansas City Chiefs have it in spades, especially with Justin Houston anchoring the pass rush, which can be frightening. They can truly win this division, but many if's have to become yes'. Namely, they need to see if Alex Smith can throw TD's to wide receivers, and if his offensive line can keep him upright. Andy Reid's teams seem the epitome of solid if unspectacular, but if the stars align, they could be truly spectacular this season. The Chargers once again left it late last season and nearly made another postseason run out of it, but fell short. Philip Rivers is becoming ageless, and he still is one of the NFL's most solid QB's, even if everyone forgets that. If Melvin Gordon gives them any semblance of a running game, the balance on offense could be lethal. The defense too is not bad, but has more questions than Kansas City. In Oakland, usually the Raiders are discounted almost immediately, but there are signs for optimism. Jack Del Rio is the epitome of an Oakland Raider: gritty, tough, grizzly, and patient. He has a promising young QB in Derek Carr, a flashy young receiver Amari Cooper who is ready to explode, and Khalil Mack, a linebacker that is a true throwback to when the Raiders were feared around the league. There will be struggles, but they could surprise anyone they play this season.

NFC Playoff Order: 1) SEA 2) DAL 3) GB 4) ATL 5) DET 6) ARZ

AFC Playoff Order: 1) IND 2) NE 3) DEN 4) PIT 5) BAL 6) KC

NFC Playoffs: 3) GB over 6) ARZ
                        5) DET over 4) ATL

                        1) SEA over 5) DET
                        3) GB over 2) DAL

                        3) GB over 1) SEA

AFC Playoffs:  3) DEN over KC
                         5) BAL over 4) PIT

                         1) IND over 5) BAL
                         2) NE over 3) DEN

                         1) IND over 2) NE

Super Bowl 50: Green Bay over Indianapolis

Awards Predictions:

MVP: Andrew Luck (IND). It's his time.
OPOY: Ben Roethlisberger (PIT). These aren't your father's Pittsburgh Steelers anymore.
DPOY: J.J Watt (HOU). He's the only reason that team is worth watching.
OROY: Amari Cooper (OAK). He and Derek Carr are going to be fun to watch this season and next, wherever they end up playing.
DROY: Vic Beasley (ATL). His emergence might be a large part of the reason Atlanta outsluggs the rest of the NFC South.
Coach: Mike Zimmer (MIN). His team won't make the playoffs in my predictions, but their improvement has been steady and considerate. The Vikings are the preseason darlings of so many for a reason.





Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Harsh Realities of Modern Football

        The transfer window has slammed shut and across Europe, many supporters are probably angry. Angry that their club didn't sign the player they had their eyes locked to, angry that their club didn't sign anyone to begin with, or spend enough money... supporters are angry. They are really angry in North London, no matter if you wear red or blue. Or at least it seems that way, if one uses the official supporters trusts as evidence.

       The Gunners Supporters Trust is angry because of the lack of transfer activity. The Tottenham Supporters Trust is angry because of the lack of cover in certain areas of the squad due to presumed penny pinching. It is wonderful that these groups exist to provide a bridge between clubs and fans because those bridges had worn down and fallen into the river of cash below long ago. But while they provide a useful service, both of these public bouts of whining seem like they are missing the point.

      Football is a global game now; one flush with cash that means Tottenham kits are not only seen in N17 but New Delhi, New York and New Zealand, and someone in Helsinki can be just as big of an Arsenal supporter as someone at Highbury. And even if it seems forgotten, football is a game directly affected by money, and whoever has more of it is likely to win. Even in the hyper-competitive Premier League where even sides like Stoke City can sign established internationals, money talks. These supporters groups act as if it doesn't.

     With the scares of Leeds United and Portsmouth well entrenched in the minds of football executives around, and even in Europe with FFP, chairmen and boards have even more of a job to do than they used to. With the playing field in England as level as any because of TV cash, money can be spent almost freely because more clubs are swimming Scrooge McDuck style in pools of gold. Clubs aren't just what their name suggests anymore. They're multi-billion dollar enterprises with global brands to maintain and financial status to cling on to. The race for the Champions League is so important because cash, specifically player wages, drive outcomes. Sure, clubs like Southampton and Crystal Palace can punch above their weight, and Sunderland and the QPR's of the world can fail despite their wage bills, but the order of how much a club pays its players is likely how the table will likely crystallize.

  Spurs were sixth in the wage table last season, Arsenal were fourth. Accepting for deviations, that is likely the ballpark where these clubs will finish this season. And the next, and the one following that. The Gunners Supporters Trust wrote, "Arsenal have built a strong squad and just one or two more good additions would have strengthened the chances of winning a first title in 11 years. No one wants Arsenal to buy players just for the sake of it, but we do want to see money invested to make the club stronger." But isn't that exactly what you're asking for? Sign players to make the club better, no matter the cost because we know you're sitting on piles of cash?

   Clubs are finding new ways to invest money, particularly on facilities and academies in order to compete with the cash that every club now possesses. It's not as sexy as spending 55 million pounds to sign Edinson Cavani, but it is arguably more sustainable, and a sounder business practice. But naturally, fans don't want to hear that. Are these supporters trusts acting then in the best interest of fans, or as a sounding board for the loudest, angriest and most vocal of them, even if they just want to be heard?

   Tottenham are a great example of how a big club can be financially sound and still compete on the highest level year in and year out. However, Daniel Levy and the board know the club cannot take the next step until the play in a larger stadium, which they are building towards. Until then, the club cannot spend on wages in the same way their Top 4 rivals can, and therefore they will not make the Champions League unless someone above them screws up in a catastrophic way. But in the heat of the moment on transfer deadline day, fans don't want to hear that. They want to hear why Saido Berahino isn't holding up a Spurs kit at Spurs Lodge, and why another midfielder wasn't bought. The average fan doesn't want to hear about how wages drive outcomes, they want to believe in the individual glory of their club.

   That's not in their best interests. Educated supporters are the best kind of supporters. They understand the realities of modern football while not forgetting why football is where it is to begin with. It is the game of the working class hero; escapism from the dregs of the day-to-day life of the common man, which is how the foundations of today's global behemoth were built. Would White Hart Lane be empty, as the Spurs Supporters Trust suggests, if the team wasn't where it is now? Of course not, that's why there is a waiting list thousands of names long.

   Naturally, these groups forget the most important item of all: winning cures all ills. Would these groups be complaining if their clubs started their respective seasons faster? Probably not.

   Supporters Trusts and official supporters groups are critical in today's game in order to maintain the links between clubs and supporters. It is critical that supporters of all ilk understand why the club does its business the way it does. But that doesn't mean the club should beg to the whims of moody fans who just want to see money spent to satisfy their own narcissistic goals of being able to brag in the pub. There is a reason why fans are fans and those in power have it.

   These groups can provide a great service to everyone involved in football, but they should not be empty ears to vent to when a club doesn't sign the right player, or any at all. There is a reason why business was done the way it was, and it probably doesn't jive with what someone with 50 followers on twitter thinks, and for good reasons.

   In sports there is a saying: "If you listen to the fans, you'll likely end up sitting with them." Maybe someone at these supporters trust should take heed of this. The picture will become clearer that way.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

2015-16 Premier League Predictions

It almost doesn't seem like the right time to write out this large prediction set for the new Premier League season. The transfer window doesn't close until the end of the month, and therefore teams still feel incomplete until then. But, since everyone else is doing it, and I am one to bow to peer pressure on occasion, it's time to predict what will happen in the wild and wacky Premier League. There will be an updated piece when the transfer window closes, but this is what I believe will happen as things stand at 12:38 EDT, August 6 2015.

In order to do this, I'm going to steal a thought from Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe, breaking the Premier League into three separate mini-leagues: The Top 6, mid-table malaise, and relegation fodder. It's the best way of parsing the situation out without writing 20 individual previews and driving myself insane.

The Top 6:

The "Sky 6" as they're known often times have gate-crashers banging on the door, but they can never seem to break it down consistently. Before it was Newcastle, then Everton, now Southampton. Despite these "intruders" making a ruckus, the "Sky 6" often keep the party to themselves. Now while the team composition won't change, the order certainly might. Chelsea won the title last season using a barely rotated squad of world-class players that outpaced the competition almost by default. They have competition to fend off this season. Arsenal with Petr Cech in tow feel that they may have their best squad since the Invincibles of 2003-04, and there's smoke to that fire. Now if they ever signed a holding midfielder... The Manchester duo splashed the cash this summer, the blue half on a jilted Liverpool starlet, the red half on a former Bayern Munich general among others, but only one looks to have dramatically improved. The question for Louis Van Gaal has to be, what is the aim for this season? They'll more than likely soak up the Champions League cash, but they're not quite title contenders... yet. Manchester City meanwhile feel like a lameduck team waiting for next summer to make a splash, meaning this season may be more of the same of last year's second and arrow pointing down performance.

Liverpool feel as if they could win the title or finish 13th, and the margin for either is slim. They've once again broken the bank trying to re-jigger a squad that never feels settled using re-collected funds from the sale of a star whose shadow has grown too big for Anfield, and last year's spending spree didn't bring about much to cheer. Will this year bring new tidings? Christian Benteke is Premier League proven, and Roberto Firmino's rise for Hoffenheim has been notable, and exciting. Most of it will come down to a central defense that has not been improved, and a midfield that better hope Lucas and James Milner provides enough of a shield for the dynamic front 4 to work their magic. In the Blue half of North London, it seems Spurs are once again taking the long view, which as a supporter of theirs is still a shock to the system, but a pleasant one. Harry Kane is no fluke, but this means their season will probably end up largely like the last one: complete with mind-blowing and mind-numbing moments in equal measure.

Mid-Table Malaise:

The champion of this table (the winner receives a trophy made of reclaimed wood from their Eastern European Europa Excursions), is going to be Swansea City. With minimal investment made, they still look like a squad that will give everyone in the league headaches. Garry Monk has them playing beautiful and fluid football, and they have the quality to back it up. While it's not good enough to crack the Top 6, it will be good enough to safely avoid relegation and maybe give them a good cup run. Last year's gate-crashers, Southampton, will have the poison chalice of the Europa League to contend with, but for them that might not be such a bad thing. Ronald Koeman is an experienced manager who has dealt with the European headache/challenge before, and will be the one to get the best out of his retooled squad. Has some of the shine worn off their impressive seasons in 2013-14 and last year? As the English quotient drops, maybe, but there is sure to be a new star that blossoms from that academy that isn't a household name yet.

In terms of the other two clubs to round out the Top 10, how about two clubs that have radically changed their image over the past couple of seasons: Stoke and Palace? Stoke City were the team everyone hated under Tony Pulis, and for good reasons. They play anti-football, were generally pretty dirty (Charlie Adam), but always found a way to avoid relegation, much to everyone's annoyance and amusement. Now under Mark Hughes, a man that has ruined many a club previous to his arrival in the Potteries, Stoke are not only playing attractive football, but are attracting players that one would have never seen at Stoke just two years ago. They're becoming a home for rejected Barca wannabee's. They may have enough to give Europe a go this season. And about Palace, Championship playoff winners two years ago thanks to Kevin Phillips, they're now embedded in the party thanks to Alan Pardew, a sightly larger transfer kitty, and a counter-culture image. They seem safe from the slugfest below them.

Relegation Fodder:

If your team wasn't mentioned above, then they are here. But even then, there are three mini-tables that develop even here: the true relegation scrappers, those just above it but not by much and those who could fall there, but probably have just enough to steer clear all season. We'll begin with the "best" of those three.

West Ham United have already found their European Vacation to be going just as well as the movie of the same name did. Europa League is a major distraction, especially for a club like West Ham, so them dumping out of it ASAP may well suit them just fine as they attempt to stay in the Premier League for their Olympic Stadium move in a year. However, that won't suit West Ham supporters and the club, who have ambitions well beyond their means, even though Dmitri Payet is a statement of intent. They haven't looked good at all against mediocre opposition, which has to be concerning for Slaven Bilic, who doesn't look like he's done tinkering with his squad yet. Everton were just fifth weren't they? That feels like a long time ago. They have played attractive football, but their form fell as Europa League sapped their limited resources away. Without it, maybe they won't be as bad as they were a season ago, but then again just re-adding Gerard Deulofeu and picking up Tom Cleverly on a free doesn't inspire much confidence.

Newcastle United have some newly found optimism thanks to Steve McClaren and Mike Ashley opening up his wallet for once. The players they have attracted have surefire quality and show a statement of ambition, but this could still all go wrong, fast. It did for McClaren at Derby last season, and it's still Newcastle. It seems unlikely that they'll be dragged into the same ferocious relegation scrap as they were last season, but even then that seems unlikely at this stage.

Then, as the quality lessens, three teams standout as ones whose relegation fears are greater, but still may not be quite as dire. Aston Villa have some renewed optimism with a new sporting director, Tim Sherwood (!!!!!!!), and some quality signings, but it's still Tim Sherwood. They will play some wide open games this season, but with just enough Premier League nous they should be able to skirt the relegation car wreck. West Bromwich Albion don't have much quality anywhere, but they do have Tony Pulis, who has always kept the yo-yo up, not down. He figures to do much the same this season, which he did constantly at Stoke. Sunderland kept the manager they wanted to badly put off retirement, which is a positive, but many of them end there. Who is going to score goals for them? Do they have quality at the back? Is the malaise that has set in at the Stadium of Light of many draws, few wins outside of derby's, and constant relegation fears too ingrained now? This is something Dick Advocaat has to fight.

And for the true relegation contenders: Leicester City's great escape last season was truly great, but it still cost the fiery Nigel Pearson his job. The Tinkerman, Claudio Ranieri, is now in the dugout after a disastrous spell as manager of Greece, with even more pressure now squarely at his feet. The Foxes have plenty of quality to go around, but they still needed a great escape to escape last season, and that feels like it may be too much for them this season. Of the promoted sides, Watford feel like the one that will stay up to this man. Even though they've made a plethora of signings (with more to come, probably), the Pozzo family M.O seems to be have a club just good enough to avoid relegation constantly. Granada and Udinese seem OK with that, so it makes sense that Watford will too. Norwich City's squad isn't too different from the one that was relegated a season+ ago, which is both a blessing and a curse. They have a great squad for the Championship, but not quite one good enough to compete every week in the Premier League. Depending on how things evolve around them, the relative tranquility may be perfect in their relegation scrap, but the squad says otherwise.

And then we have Bournemouth, this season's Blackpool. This team is making its Top Flight debut after being around for over 130 years. They play in a stadium dwarfed in size possibly by your high school football team's house, are owned by a lesser Russian oilgarch and seem almost destined for a Blackpool style fate, but even then it doesn't seem to match the magic and mystique this club will have all season. Eddie Howe is a rising managerial star with his approach to the game and football in general, and it will not be a surprise that someday soon, he will be managing a bigger club. That day may come even during this season, but then again, seeing as he saved the club from the brink of extinction, maybe not. Relegation won't even feel like a step backwards this season because of the remarkable journey they've been on from the start. That Blackpool comparison might be an endearing one, but it's not a favorable one.

So after you've digested those nearly 2,000 words on the Premier League season, here are my predictions in order as of 1:40 PM EDT on August 6 (subject to change after the transfer window shuts and Jim White goes back into hibernation):

1. Chelsea
2. Arsenal
3. Manchester United
4. Manchester City
5. Liverpool
6. Spurs
7. Swansea City
8. Southampton
9. Stoke City
10. Crystal Palace
11. Everton
12. Newcastle United
13. West Ham United
14. West Bromwich Albion
15. Aston Villa
16. Sunderland
17. Watford
18. Leicester City
19. Norwich City
20. Bournemouth

If you disagree with this, and you probably do, tell me why I'm wrong. I have enough tweets to argue around.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Did You See That: Sports Hackers

Now that the FBI has dinged FIFA and the St. Louis Cardinals in a matter of weeks, they may never have better press than they do right now. But this story reported by the New York Times, indicating that the Cardinals are under investigating for hacking the Houston Astros player database, had me wondering whether other teams are doing the same thing. I have desperately been calling my sources across all sports, and have found some interesting tidbits. I've been told all of the passwords to these secret networks have been changed in the last few minutes... or have they?

--> Dan Griffin's personal player database had been protected by the password, "Lebron4MVP" during the playoffs. It had been "Who is really the GM?" during the regular season. Interestingly enough, the passwords are font protected.

--> Sam Hinkie's Sixers computer had the password "Panzer", which surprisingly no one even came close to guessing. Post Draft Lottery, it's been changed to "howitzer". 

--> Skip Bayless has a computer (this is news enough) with the double-password protection of "Johnny" and "clutch". It used to be "Tebow", but after a 7 year-old managed to break through along with his Jets fan father, Skip had no choice.

--> In a rather surprising development, Dave Nonis' old computer for the Leafs was password locked by the word "Corsi". This might be why no one else ever mentioned it in any Leafs front office meetings.

--> Evander Kane's phone is locked by the password "tracksuit", apparently as extra motivation. 

--> Jack Warner's network of financial accounts were protected by the password "Blatter", in an effort to remind himself who to thank when the checks cleared. 

--> One of my sources tried to find his way through the morass of sports twitter accounts that troll in plentiful amounts, and found that over 1,000 of them had the password "nice". He figures there will be 42,069 further sports accounts with the same password.

--> As I type this one out, I'm being told there's an abnormally large group of people named Ted whose passwords are all the same. It's a funny password chain... in any order the passwords are, "promotion", "relegation", and "American". Strange.

--> Jurgen Klinsmann's Californian computers have both a German and English password for even more protection. However he seems to have overwritten both with the chain of "Zelalem" and "fitness". 

--> Finally, what did the former Cardinals officials who moved on to Houston use as his passwords? "Best Fans in baseball". Funny how that when it was tried in Houston, the officials were repeatedly locked out. So eventually, the passwords were changed. To what? "Commencing countdown engines on". 

This is not to encourage anyone to begin hacking secret team computer networks. The FBI is already on a roll with good PR, and finding your sloppy hack-job is only going to inflate their egos. That means you, James Dolan. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Reign of a Dynasty

Sports fans are often concerned with perception, bot contemporaneous perception and historical perception of any given team. Pub and talk radio discussions often center on discussions about historical greatness, namely the term "dynasty". The older definition of a sporting dynasty was three consecutive championships in any given sport, and in the past dynasties were not only common, but almost expected. Every sport has had it's dynasties, but as money has been pumped into the game and the playing field has been artificially leveled, sports fans have to re-define what a dynasty is in the modern game.

Such is the discussion now centered around the Chicago Blackhawks, Are their three Stanley Cup victories in six seasons a dynasty, a modern equivalent, or an insult to the term? The context of the Blackhawks greatness lies in the constraints of their time; namely an increasingly restrictive salary cap that has prevented them from keeping Cup winning teams together. After their 2010 triumph, out went Brian Campbell, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and Antti Niemi, and in came two consecutive first round exits as they rebuilt. By their second cup in four seasons, in came new faces like Johnny Oduya, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Michael Frolik, etc., and the Hawks came out on top again. The core of Kane, Toews, Keith, Hjalmarsson, Hossa, Sharp, Seabrook, et al stayed intact. 

Now as they are crowned champions for a third time in six seasons, they once again face a cap crunch that will see many faces depart for pastures new by force, not by choice. But with the core that they've kept together despite the cap ceiling rapidly approaching them, they've been as dominant a team as hockey may ever see in the salary cap era. The Los Angeles Kings, one of the few teams to find a way to beat the Hawks in this run, missed the postseason after two cup wins in three seasons, and the Rangers nearly became the first teams since 2008-09 to make the Final in back-to-back seasons, but they were foiled by the up-and-comers from Tampa Bay.

Maintaining a playoff team in the cap era is not as difficult as it seems, even though turnover is part of the game every season. Maintaining a consistent cup contender is incredibly difficult. The Blackhawks have found this out, so have the Bruins, so will the Kings. Team construction has been changing and become as malleable as ever even as the styles and systems individual teams play have become more and more homogenized, which makes Chicago's consistent reloading of complementary pieces almost unheard of in the modern era of hockey. They've won with the same coach too. The Red Wings won their Cups with different coaches, so did the Devils. 

Nick Leddy's move to the Islanders was a precursor of moves to come this offseason as the cap barely climbs and the salary burdens of Toews and Kane increase rapidly. The Blackhawks have made five Conference Final appearances in seven years, which is the best appearance rate since the Avalanche made seven straight from 1996-2002, and they only won two titles in that period. Even the Devils from 1995 to 2003 had early round exits and even missed the playoffs one year despite winning three titles in nine years. 

With the brilliant managing of Stan Bowman, it's entirely conceivable that the Blackhawks are back in a similar position next season, making their claims to dynastic status even stronger. But regardless of what the new look Hawks do in the future, what they've done in the last seven years can qualify as a dynasty, since it's entirely possible no one tops it any time soon.

Winning back-to-back championships is almost nigh-on impossible in modern sports considering the artificial parity enforced by salary caps, luxury taxes, consistent player movement, advanced scouting methods and rapidly rising player salaries. Hockey is a team sport where every player has a role to play and an important one at that, which is why the bloodletting that took place after the 2010 championship meant two "lean" years for Chicago. Maybe more will come as the Western Conference adds a generational talent to its ranks, but that is rendered irrelevant at this very moment, when the hockey world is celebrating a great, maybe historic champion.

The old definition of dynasty is as antiquated as where the term originated from, but by the changing definition of the term, these Blackhawks are a dynasty. What came before them and what will come after is not relevant now.

Winning consistently, as the LA Kings have found out, is incredibly difficult. The Blackhawks have made it look easy for all of these years. For that, they should be awarded the crown. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

FIFA had its Blatter Removed

I personally hope that John Oliver likes the taste of Bud Light Lime, the McDonalds dollar menu and wearing uncomfortable Adidas shoes. Earlier today, Sepp Blatter announced suddenly and shockingly that he is resigning as FIFA President and a new one will be elected within the next 4-5 months. How did this happen so quickly? John Oliver obviously played a critical role, but what else led to this happening almost overnight?

With the New York Times reporting that a money transfer was made by FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke to disgraced former CONCACAF head Jack Warner to the tune of $10 million before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, many are wondering if this landed too close to the feet of the (now former) FIFA President. Could Warner, even in his public defiance, have flipped on him in private? Something has to have happened, either from the authorities in Switzerland or the US telling him to stand down or else (even though he's probably going to be arrested if the paper trail nabs him), or maybe Sepp's personal clock told him it was time to stop the charade. Something tells me the investigation was getting a little too close to his office. Swiss General Authorities have said that Blatter is NOT under investigation at the moment, but could well be in the US. 

Adidas was making waves that it could be thinking about removing its sponsorship of FIFA, and aside from the FBI and DOJ, the sponsors have the real power to incite change, and after Sony had dropped out last year. Visa did too. It's not too much of a coincidence to believe that this played some role, but a mass exodus of sponsors would probably have been needed to cause something like this to occur. Did others make gestures to FIFA together? That we may also never know. 

Did the talk of the UEFA boycott of the 2018 World Cup do something to force hands? Probably not, even as the British media pressed the story as hard they could, and that was the nuclear option. Strong rhetoric is just that.

Did Sepp Blatter care about his legacy enough to preserve it? Probably, but why did he run on Friday? But Blatter doesn't think the way the rest of us do. He'll certainly take credit if the reforms do get passed. If the posse was getting close...

Whatever the reason for this, hopefully this is the beginning of the change that FIFA needs from the very top, to the local confederations around the world. FIFA needs restructuring like what the IOC went through after the Salt Lake City vote bribing scandal hit the fan. This will take plenty of time to see the true reforms and the true changes, especially considering the next Presidential election may not occur until January. The entire structure of FIFA is rotten, and the new President is only the tip of the iceberg in the reformation process. A possible re-vote on the 2022 World Cup is so far down the line of causality, and that line is as winding as the Swiss Alps (2018 is probably too close and too entangled with already tetchy international issues to be removed from Russia). 

This day belongs to football fans around the world who have had to put up with this nonsense and see the game been treated like an ATM machine. Credit needs to be given to the journalists who have fought the fight to report on FIFA's corruption, including those at the Sunday Times and especially Andrew Jennings, who has been beating this drum for at least 10 years and must feel some vindication on this day.

Whoever replaces FIFA has plenty of work to do. Blatter has about 4-6 months left before this extraordinary Congress is held. The next few months will be a fascinating study as to what the World's game is going to become.

But for today, we should all be drinking a drink that "tastes like the puddle underneath the dumpster behind a Long John Silver's". It won't taste like that (for today, at least). 

Friday, May 29, 2015

FIFA needs it's Blatter removed

   The world, including the soccer skeptical American media watched with (feigned) horror as Sepp Blatter was re-elected as FIFA President for a fifth term. Many new to the wonders of FIFA have openly surmised how a man who runs such a crooked organization can be re-elected without incident and so much as a serious challenge. But Blatter's FIFA operates outside the bounds of logic, and we all must remember that when projecting what the next few years for this organization will be like.

  Blatter's centers of power lie in those nations that feel they have none, especially in the eyes of world football. So that means nations like the US, England, and to be honest most of the Western world will not support Blatter because they don't need his support to push the game forward. But Papua New Guinea? Montserrat? Burundi? These nations owe much of their soccer fortunes to Blatter's FIFA giving them (the heads of the respective associations that is) the cash they need to build pitches, promote the game, etc. It is, for so long why Canada was despite its stature willing to play FIFA's game. 133 nations out of a possible 209 likely fell into this boat.

  73 votes for Prince Ali of Jordan is a sizable dent in Blatter's seemingly impenetrable armor, yet it was merely a flesh wound. Blatter can speak openly about wanting to reform FIFA, but he doesn't need to seeing as it won't help him maintain his grip on the organization he's basically become the symbol of, for better or worse. When he was confirmed as President once again, he talked about Oceania needing a larger voice on FIFA's ExCo, which makes little sense in logic considering 11 football playing nations comprise the Oceanic football federation, and 10 of them are minnows who play football with farmers, doctors and basic day laborers, not professionals. But Blatter's base of power remains in nations similar to those, and until there is a reason for them to not support Blatter, they'll keep him in power.

   Business at FIFA is done how it is done in most of the non-Western world, and no one should be surprised by this. Western standards do not apply to an organization that was taken from being a 12 person outfit based out of a Swiss shack to the most powerful sporting organization in the world, almost overnight. While the DOJ and FBI might scare some in FIFA, and scared some of the federation heads to flip their votes, it didn't scare quite enough of them. Too many footballing nations owe most of their meager possessions and goals to Blatter handing them over, especially the ridiculously wealthy federation heads.

  No matter how many expose's are published about FIFA's corruption from the media, no matter how many whistleblowers come forward and say bribes were pushed in front of their eyes, and how many empty threats are made by Michel Platini, Greg Dyke and others about dropping out of FIFA and/or boycotting future World Cups, these are all going to make Sepp Blatter's position stronger. He is the master of turning a negative into a positive. He is the master of mending diplomatic wounds, and a master of knowing when is the right time to change his tune if it suits him. Remember, he voted for the US as host of 2022 World Cup, not Qatar.

  So what is next for FIFA? For the short term, the status quo. FIFA is running tournaments as I type this in New Zealand and Canada, and has more coming the rest of this calendar year. Unless Swiss authorities or the FBI find more dirt to arrest more executives, the investigation will go on behind the scenes while everyone waits for the next seismic shock. It might take years to find the smoking gun that could force Blatter out or extradited, or that votes for the Qatari World Cup were in fact bought illegally. Maybe UEFA or the USSF will take the dramatic step and try to force FIFA's hand, but until then, it's business as usual. Changes may take place at the heads of CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, at individual federations, and FIFA may ban former members of their organization as necessary PR lip service, but until the next shoe drops, it's business as usual.

  Many of us will watch the U-20 World Cup, the Women's World Cup and the qualifying draw for the 2018 World Cup in Russia that take place in May-June-July. FIFA is inescapable around these times. But if these past few days have taught the world anything about FIFA, it is this:

  Dealing with an illogical organization logically gets no one anywhere. And as Sepp Blatter and FIFA proved today, there is no logic at that complex in Zurich.