Monday, November 28, 2016

Crunching the Numbers

Unless you're a big hockey fan, this news probably slipper under the radar during a big NFL Sunday. The Florida Panthers fired head coach Gerard Gallant after a 3-2 loss in Carolina, which dropped the team to 11-10-1 on the season. You're probably wondering, if you're not intimately familiar with the Florida Panthers, how good was he as a coach? He was very solid in his two+ seasons. 96-65-23 (.583) was his record, and he won only the second division title in franchise history last season and set the single season franchise record for points with 103.

Also this season, Gallant's team has had to deal with a litany of big injuries, such as to Jonathan Huberdeau, who hasn't played all year, Nick Bjugstad, who has only played three games, and slow stars for players like Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, Keith Yandle, etc. The team hasn't set the world alight, but it's certainly not Islanders or Coyotes bad. So why then has there been such a divisive and stark reaction to this firing of all head coaching changes in the NHL?

The story in Florida goes far deeper than the head coach. Ownership instituted a massive front office re-shuffle after the playoff exit against the Islanders, which "bumped" Dale Tallon to President of Hockey Operations, Tom Rowe to GM (and he's now the head coach, but we'll get to that), Steve Werier and Eric Joyce to AGM's, and fired longtime team employees such as Scott Luce, Mike Dixon, Dave Zenobi, etc. It's no secret in the hockey world that the Panthers have taken more of an analytical approach to building a hockey team, owing to new owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu's background in the Wall Street financial world. Analytics in the hockey world, especially in player personnel decision making is still a sore subject for some in the sport, and with what's been going on in Florida, the "wounds" are cutting even deeper.

Gerard Gallant's unceremonious turfing, and the pictures of him and assistant coach Mike Kelly needing to call a cab in Raleigh after getting the news, set the hockey world on fire. "Mainstream media" is not happy that Gallant, who was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award last year, was fired at all, especially when those in the world of analytics weren't quite as high on Gallant as many in hockey circles are. Combine this with the front office exodus of other "good hockey guys" from May, and the lingering resentment that still exists among some in the sport has now been re-opened.

Are these "hockey people" wrong to be angry at how these front office changes in Florida have gone down? Not necessarily, especially since many saw good friends fired after what was a historic season for the team. But its evident the firing came down in large part because of a fundamental disconnect between how Gallant wanted the team constructed and how the front office wanted it constructed. And while there's an analytic focus in the team's front office, a disconnect between the bench and management is nothing new in the world of hockey, and what this change comes down to is that disconnect became a bridge too far. But that's still not the end of this story.

Whenever there's a personnel move predicated on analytics, a divide emerges between those in the "mainstream media" and bloggers/analysts who are analytics driven in the analysis of the move. This happened with the Toronto Maple Leafs collapse in 2013-14, the Shea Weber trade to Montreal, and a number of other major flashpoints recently. But the divide seems even more stark with this move. Why?

Media members have plenty of friends in the world of hockey who are none too pleased with what the Panthers have been doing. These "hockey people" are not getting the jobs that Eric Joyce, Steve Werier, Matt Caldwell, etc. have been getting. These "army guys" are not well embraced by the "hockey world" because they're not from the "hockey world". The reaction from inside the sport, translated by the "mainstream media" is an extension of a fight or flight reaction to an internal battle in the sport as to whether to accept these "outsiders" in their tight-knit circle or not, and having one team buck custom and trends to such an extreme is a shock to a well established system. This does not mean the reaction is correct, or whether firing Gallant is the right move to get the Panthers on the track towards the team they ultimately want to be, but this is why the reaction has been so strong from one side of the ledger.

Hockey is still in the midst of an analytics revolution that took hold in baseball and basketball well before it, and those in the sport are still struggling to figure out how much of these numbers to use in decision making processes. Some teams don't use the numbers at all, others, like Florida, Toronto and Arizona have gone all-in, and others use them more subtly, like Carolina, Los Angeles and Chicago. Time will tell what path is the "right" one, but in a sport as insular as hockey has been, the introduction of another way is not a welcome introduction.

That's why the divide in reaction to the firing has been so stark. Combined with what else has gone down in Florida this year, the reaction to the move is not surprising. However, the current structure of the team from the front office down is now as ownership wants it, and whether it works remains to be seen.

If it fails, will some in the hockey world be happy? You bet. Whether that's right or not is up for you to decide. Whether it's right for the Panthers to be seen as the guinea pig for whether analytics work as a part of personnel decision making is also up for debate, but it's already beginning to happen.

Such is the situation with the Florida Panthers, and the divide in the hockey world it has widened, from the "hockey people" inside the sport to the media that often pushes their message.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Boy Who Cried Jurgen Klinsmann Should be Fired

This piece is not about Jurgen Klinsmann being fired and getting replaced by Bruce Arena. It's not about his tactics, or his ego and aura of haughty supremacy and holier-than-thou attitude towards his own mistakes. This is about how we as US Soccer fans and media have turned Klinsmann into something he's not: a pantomime villain.

Maybe that characterization is a bit harsh, because Klinsmann did take the US forward in many respects, especially the player pool. But since the 2014 World Cup, performances have been sliding downward, however that doesn't tell the entire story. In Klinsmann's early days, his teams were on the precipice of disaster multiple times, including a qualifying loss at Jamaica in 2012, and that infamous February day in 2013; one that Timmy Chandler wishes everyone forgot. And there still is that Brian Straus piece lying around on the internet that shows not everything was great even at the beginning. But like Rasputin, nothing could kill Klinsmann off because he got the major results when he needed to and kept his job and the team in order.

But after that, every time Klinsmann was put under the microscope, he failed his tests. From the abject horror of the 2015 Gold Cup, to the embarrassment against Brazil not even a month later, and then the CONCACAF Cup disappointment against Mexico, he wasn't able to keep the sugar out. And when he failed, often spectacularly, no one could hide their disdain or willingness to send Klinsmann out. And that is what we're going to talk about here: the legitimate claims of something being wrong yet shrouded by the instant calls for Klinsmann to be sacked.

Of course sacking managers in soccer is nothing novel or new, especially in the international game. Managers are interchanged as often as toothpicks. But there was something about the calls for Klinsmann to be fired after every little mistake in every single game, especially in the big games, that seemed different and excessive. This again is not meant to defend Klinsmann from the criticism he absolutely deserved, but the immediate calls to sack him certainly didn't make the atmosphere around his team any better, especially when the bad results started to stack up.

And what's strange about this phenomenon is it only started after the World Cup. Perhaps, weirdly enough, he doesn't get enough criticism for his team's set-up against Belgium, which required Tim Howard to be Superman in order to just keep the US in the game. And yet they were not too far away from heading to penalties with that Golden Generation. But the honeymoon ended quickly after that game and during the Gold Cup of 2015, every mistake tactically or otherwise was foist upon Klinsmann's head.

He was certainly given more slack privately than Bob Bradley did for similar sins, largely because of the new contract Sunil Gulati handed him, but in the court of public opinion he was fired at least five times for his many tactical failings before he was actually fired. So by the time when he committed the sins that actually caused his downfall, the mob had already figuratively drawn and quartered the man, even though there were legitimate complaints well before the Mexico and Costa Rica games.

Did Klinsmann deserve the criticism he had been given for his many failings? Yes, unquestionably. But since every one of those sins was a fatal offense in the eyes of many, whether they actually were or not (and some certainly were), the analysis of him as a manager and even technical director suddenly became about the fact he should have already been fired even before a ball had been kicked in his next test.

Now that he has been sacked, the question will be whether Bruce Arena is held to a similar standard. He has far less margin for error, but in many ways is more respected than Klinsmann, so how his early results will be judged is a fascinating test to see whether the standards shift for different managers. In theory they shouldn't. But if the US fails to qualify for Russia, will we see opinions such as "Arena couldn't do much with what Klinsmann left him" in full bloom?

This piece is essentially about the opinions of opinions, which is plenty meta, but important to understand how US soccer fans and media view themselves, their national team and how the sport has grown in this country. In many ways we've caught up to the rest of the world now, with the almost daily insistence that Jurgen Klinsmann be fired the final step in our evolution.

But the next question is whether future managers are held to that standard, tactics and otherwise aside. Standards shift and change based on the times, but should they? When the goal is beyond just making the World Cup, maybe not.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

2016-17 NHL Season Predictions

With my MLB postseason predictions already down the toilet, it's nice to have another set of predictions to make almost immediately in order to wash that bad taste out of my mouth. And what a set of predictions it is... the 2016-17 NHL season is finally here. There are so many great young players, new faces, exciting teams and more to be primed for. It seems like the standard of play is rising as more teams try to emulate the Penguins model for winning the Stanley Cup, and that can only make the hockey better. There is a lot of predicting to do, so let's get to the predicting, shall we?

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

Blurb: The Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup Champs, and on paper they're almost exactly the same team from last year. Sidney Crosby's concussion is obviously a major concern for the start of this season, and could dig them a hole in a battle for eventual home-ice in the playoffs against Washington. But even with that said, all signs point to the Pens and Caps battling again for supremacy in this division. This season could be the last with these Capitals as currently constructed, and with some good tweaks to their bottom six, is this the year they finally break through? It feels honestly like they're due. Below them, Philadelphia's move to get younger and faster will pay dividends as they move up the standings, and become one of the league's more interesting teams to follow all season. Both the Islanders and Rangers were playoff teams last season, but there seem to be increasing odds that one of them will miss the dance this year. Replacing Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen with Jason Chimera and Andrew Ladd isn't exactly making things better, though some of the young talent they have is very exciting. They also have a much better defense corps than the Rangers do, which is critical. The Rangers could sneak into the dance because their forward group is younger and more exciting than ever, which could distract from the fact that they do have one of the worst D groups in the league.

Carolina's slow build is getting closer to bearing fruit, and while they're not making the postseason this year, they will continue steady improvement towards getting there soon. Bill Peters is one of my favorite NHL coaches for his emphasis on puck possession and now that he has a better roster, things could be fun out in Raleigh. New Jersey with Taylor Hall is a slightly better version of what they were a year ago, and Corey Schneider's presence keeps them just out of the Nolan Patrick sweepstakes. Columbus on the other hand...

Atlantic:
1. Tampa Bay
2. Florida
3. Montreal
4. Boston
5. Detroit
6. Buffalo
7. Ottawa
8. Toronto

Blurb: Steve Yzerman is a wizard, by the way. Tampa would have won this division if not for Steven Stamkos' injury last year, and with a (hopefully) full cast, they should likely waltz this year. Florida's surprising division win last year was a surprising twist to some (though not me, because I thought they'd make the postseason), but this year they have expectations after an unexpected front office shakeup and a radically remade D group. Injuries to Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad are going to hurt them from the start, but they still have enough talent, good coaching and Roberto Luongo to hold off Montreal and Boston for second. The Habs are going downhill, though the effects of that might not be felt for a few years yet. In the meantime, if Carey Price plays a majority of the Habs games, they will make the postseason with ease, though dealing with the Bolts and Cats will be a tough ask. Boston is in a very similar position to the Rangers, but playing in a worse division from top to bottom gives them a chance to sneak into the postseason after narrowly missing out the last two.

Detroit's amazing postseason streak comes to an end this year because their roster is nowhere near what it once was. Signing aging veterans and not giving the keys to the Mantha's, Larkin's and Athanasiou's yet is a mistake. They're heading for mediocrity fast. Buffalo could make some serious improvements again, but the injury to Jack Eichel is a major concern. They could challenge for a playoff spot for a bit before fading. Ottawa is a major wild card because of Guy Boucher, and I wouldn't be surprised if they're a playoff team this year despite roster issues that are well documented. And Toronto's youth movement continues, and they will be better than they have been, though probably still not very good.

Central:
1. Nashville
2. Dallas
3. St. Louis
4. Chicago
5. Minnesota
6. Colorado
7. Winnipeg

Blurb: After making the PK Subban trade, the Preds are not only one of the most likable teams in the league (if not the most), they're also probably the best. Their D corps is absolutely amazing and at the top of their powers, and while that's never been an issue, now they have the forwards to match such as Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Kevin Fiala, James Neal, etc. They aren't a trendy pick anymore; they are favorites. Behind them, Dallas will still have their run-and-gun offense with the same goaltending and defense issues behind Benn/Seguin/Spezza et al. That'll be good enough for the playoffs, but much beyond that who knows. St. Louis is in a transition year away from Ken Hitchcock, but they still are a playoff team at the very least. Adding Nail Yakupov in a trade from Edmonton is certainly going to help, especially if he and Vladimir Tarasenko can establish chemistry.

How about those Blackhawks? After last year's Game 7 loss to the Blues, they are in one of their biggest transition seasons since their run began eight years ago, and the bottom six certainly feels like it. Unless some of those youngsters and journeymen play above their heads, they have a mountain to climb in the NHL's deepest division, though they'll still make the playoffs since the Pacific is a trash heap. And while Bruce Boudreau always wins divisions, he won't this year with this Minnesota but the playoffs still seem likely. They aren't all that different from last year, but with a better coach they'll succeed, at least relatively. Colorado will make a marked improvement in their play now that Patrick Roy is out, and they could easily make the playoffs though they have so many teams to jump. And finally, while Winnipeg's youth is exciting and plentiful, they don't quite have enough to get through everyone else in the division, thanks in large part to Jacob Trouba's holdout.

Pacific:
1. San Jose
2. Los Angeles
3. Calgary
4. Anaheim
5. Edmonton
6. Arizona
7. Vancouver

Blurb: Now that the Sharks playoff hoodoo is officially gone, how do they follow up their trip to the Stanley Cup Final? It helps that their division is a trash heap, meaning they don't have to do much to win it, though they never seem to. The last ride for Marleau and Thornton will at least continue for one more season. LA's Cup runs seem more and more distant as the roster continues to decay and get older, though they clearly have enough in this division to make the dance. And finding that third team to round it all off was a tough decision. Calgary underachieved dramatically last year, and finally has decent goaltending, while Anaheim has the roster and pedigree, yet hired Randy Carlyle and could be an epic disaster, and Edmonton has a hopefully healthy Connor but still a rancid D corps and questions between the pipes... I ended up going with Calgary third because my memories of the 2015 playoffs are still vivid and I want the Ducks to be punished for making incredibly stupid decisions and essentially firing Bruce Boudreau for not winning Game 7's. Edmonton will have their flashes, but they aren't ready yet.

Though Arizona won't be very good just yet, they have the best assemblage of young talent in the league, and you'll get to see it most every night. Duclair, Domi, Dvorak, Crouse, Chychrun and more is coming too. And Vancouver... Nolan Patrick is really good and you should watch the Brandon Wheat Kings this season.

Playoff Predictions:

East:

(A1) Tampa Bay over (WC2) NY Rangers in 5
(A2) Florida over (A3) Montreal in 7

(M1) Washington over (WC1) NY Islanders in 6
(M2) Pittsburgh over (M3) Philadelphia in 6

(A1) Tampa Bay over (A2) Florida in 6
(M1) Washington over (M2) Pittsburgh in 7 (just to slay all the demons)

(M1) Washington over (A1) Tampa Bay in 7

West:

(C1) Nashville over (WC2) Minnesota in 5
(C3) St. Louis over (C2) Dallas in 6

(P1) San Jose over (WC1) Chicago in 6
(P2) LA over (P3) Calgary in 5

(C1) Nashville over (C3) St. Louis in 6
(P1) San Jose over (P2) LA in 5

(C1) Nashville over (P1) San Jose in 6

2017 Stanley Cup Final:

(M1) Washington over (C1) Nashville in 5

Yep, the Caps finally do it, and they do it by beating Barry Trotz's former team.

Award Predictions:

Hart: Alex Ovechkin
Norris: Erik Karlsson
Calder: Patrik Laine
Vezina: Carey Price
Jack Adams: Bill Peters
Rocket Richard: Alex Ovechkin
Art Ross: Connor McDavid

So here they are. Please feel free as always to tell me how wrong I am.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

2016 MLB Postseason Predictions (and Regular Season Prediction Recap)

Considering that my regular season predictions were at least in the right ballpark, if a bit off in some spots, does that mean my playoff predictions will do better? I'd like to think so, considering how off I was a postseason ago. So, here are my brief postseason predictions:

AL Wild Card Game: Orioles over Blue Jays
NL Wild Card Game: Mets over Giants (I have to)

ALDS: Rangers over Orioles in 4
             Red Sox over Indians in 5

ALCS: Red Sox over Rangers in 6

NLDS: Cubs over Mets in 4
             Dodgers over Nats in 4

NLCS: Cubs over Dodgers in 7

World Series (Dreams really do come true, FOX): Red Sox over Cubs in 6

World Series MVP: David Ortiz (Hello Narrative)

Just a tiny bit more torture for the forever tortured Chicago Cubs. The Red Sox have the mix of pitching and offense that's needed to win the World Series, and while the Cubs are pretty clearly the favorite, something tells me the Red Sox are going to send Big Papi off with a championship. Gut feeling rather than going with numbers and science. That always works, doesn't it?

And since I can, here are some of my favorites from my preseason predictions:

I got four out of five NL playoff teams right, only whiffing on the Nats who made it and the Cardinals who didn't. In the AL, I got three of the five, whiffing on Houston and Kansas City in place of Baltimore and Cleveland (Baltimore was the biggest whiff of them all). My preseason World Series prediction was Blue Jays over Giants, which is still possible, but at this point extremely unlikely.

In terms of awards (my preseason prediction in italics)...

NL Cy Young: Madison Bumgarner (It will likely be Max Scherzer, but give it to Jose Fernandez please, what a story that would be).
AL Cy Young: David Price (Yeah right. Corey Kluber is a good candidate, so is Rick Porcello and Zach Britton, who I defer to because being that consistent as a closer is incredibly rare).
NL MVP: Kris Bryant (Pretty much. Corey Seager can also win it, but Bryant is the favorite).
AL MVP: Carlos Correa (Not quite. Mike Trout is still the best player in the AL, though he's on a bad team. There are plenty of contenders, including Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, David Ortiz, Mookie Bets, etc. but I'd defer to Trout here).
NL Rookie: Corey Seager (The most obvious award winner in the history of this award)
AL Rookie: Byron Buxton (would have been nice, but nope. Michael Fulmer was pretty amazing for the Tigers, but Gary Sanchez probably wins the award even though he played less than half a season).
NL Manager: Bruce Bochy (Dusty Baker turned dysfunction into harmony and a NL East title. Dave Roberts could also be in contention).
AL Manager: John Gibbons (The Jays underachieved. The Indians overachieved. Terry Francona gets it done).
NL Homer King: Bryce Harper (Chris Carter and Nolan Arenado. How about that? Harper only had 24).
AL Homer King: Miguel Sano (Mark Trumbo won it easy. Should have known. Sano had 25, and was dwarfed on his own team by Brian Dozier).

Enjoy the postseason!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

RIP Jose Fernandez

Two days after the world learned of the tragic death of Marlins Pitcher Jose Fernandez, I can still barely believe it. Watching the footage from last night in Miami brought tears to my eyes, and I'm a Mets fan still paralyzed with the fear they'll miss the playoffs. Last night, I really didn't care about where the Mets were in the standings though, because last night was not about them. It seemed that the entire world, not just baseball's sphere, was grieving with them. Sports sometimes can seem like a fantasy world where a person's humanity almost seems secondary, but Jose Fernandez's horrific passing reminds us that while sports are an escape in many instances, life finds a way to remind us the bubble can pop at anytime.

I only watched Jose Fernandez pitch a few times on TV, and I'm no baseball scout, but watching him pitch felt like an occasion and must see TV. While I was terrified as a fan anytime the Mets played against Fernandez, my ears always perked up when I found out he was starting, because I'd get to watch him pitch. Jose Fernandez loved baseball, loved pitching and loved life, and even when he had nights where he wasn't himself, his joy of being on the mound was good enough to transcend performances and the situation his team was in. When he needed Tommy John surgery a few years back, it felt almost funereal because baseball was robbed of his electric stuff and his joy for over a year. Baseball celebrated his return like few others, even though Tommy John surgery became a far too common phrase in the news while Fernandez was on the shelf. Knowing now that we'll never see Fernandez pitch again is heartbreaking, not just because a life that had so much potential was taken far too soon, but because so few capture the imagination and minds of fans and the baseball world alike as Fernandez did.

When it seems the world is being inundated with negative and bad news (as is happening right now), sports can, for some people, become an escape from that world and attempt to bind the wounds of division that the "real world" opens up. But with the anthem protests and now this horrible tragedy, life reminds us all the sports bubble can pop incredibly easily. Sometimes, we all forget that the athletes playing the games we love so much and the people in the front offices making personnel and other decisions are human beings too, and they have emotions and life stories like those watching from the couch or the bar. Watching the Marlins grieve the way they did is so heartbreaking that even non-baseball fans can't hold back the tears. Watching Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez not be able to contain their emotions opening the Phillies-Mets game on Sunday after the news broke reminds us that the delicate human experience transcends all boundaries, even sports.

There are so many aspects of Fernandez's human story beyond baseball that are worth expanding upon: from his multiple attempts to flee Cuba, to unknowingly saving his mother after she went overboard on a ship leaving the island, to becoming an incredibly successful refugee and his immense pride in becoming an American citizen, etc. All of them have been drawn and touched upon multiple times in the days after his death, but there is one aspect of his story that I feel supersedes all of them, including the not-nearly talked about enough refugee angle: his boundless enthusiasm and joy in life.

It's hard to see GIF's now of Fernandez's celebrations of home runs, pitches, etc. because that passion is sorely lacking in the broader world right now. He was a man who was incredibly fortunate and successful, and made sure to enjoy every moment of life as if it was his last. Life is often difficult and challenging, and seeing a smile as big as Fernandez's on bad days could almost singlehandedly erase some of the negativity that swirled. If more people showed that joy in life even if they're not incredibly talented athletes, wouldn't life be less of an exercise sometimes? Even just a little bit?

Many other people have more enlightening and personal stories about Jose Fernandez than I do, and they're likely to be better arbiters on his life than I am. But embracing his life and the joy and happiness he showed every day in life can hopefully remind everyone that even in ridiculously tough times, we all find a way to overcome and move on to find joy in what truly makes life great, whatever your passion is.

Jose Fernandez lived the American Dream, his passion and his drive through baseball. What we need to do to honor his memory is live our passions and enjoy life with the same enthusiasm, verve and joy that he did. That will be the best way to honor his memory and the impact he left on baseball and the world.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

2016 NFL Season Predictions

Wonderfully and thankfully, the NFL is about to totally consume our lives once again. On the road to Houston, there promises to be many thrills, spills, craziness, trumped up drama as well as surprises. But even though this league always changes thanks to parity, it seems that this year, the expected might once again become the norm. Although, this is the NFL and as has been proven before, anything is possible.

In some ways then, this should be one of the easiest seasons to predict in recent NFL history, but in many ways, mediocrity has become the coin of the realm, and there's a distinct possibility that two division winners will win fewer than 10 games. For the very few truly great teams, it seems like there will be a scrap among themselves for supremacy, while everyone else toes the line. So here are quick blurbs for each division, plus a fantasy player to watch.

NFC East:

1. New York Giants (9-7)
2. Washington (7-9)
3. Dallas (6-10)
4. Philadelphia (5-11)

Mediocrity personified. Every team in this division has major flaws, and the winner is the one with the fewest flaws by far, and that would be the Giants. They have the best player in the division with Odell Beckham, and the least bad defense. And hey, when they won their Super Bowl's, they weren't all that special during the regular season. Washington has Kirk Cousins needing to prove himself, an interesting offense and a defense with big playmakers, but not the supporting cast. With the attrition due to injuries and suspensions on both sides of the ball, it has to take its toll on the Cowboys once again, and it will this season. And the Eagles are starting from zero, which means their performances this season will go as it sounds.

Fantasy Player to Watch: Ezekiel Elliot

NFC North:

1. Green Bay (12-4)
2. Minnesota (9-7)
3. Detroit (7-9)
4. Chicago (6-10)

Green Bay is healthier than they were a season ago, and their defense has slowly been improving. With the unfortunate events in Minnesota, the Packers have a clear opening to take back this division. While Minnesota is clearly in "win-now" mode, the trade for Sam Bradford makes sense, but might only be a band-aid for a team that needs stitches, at least this year. Without Calvin Johnson, the Lions lack the playmakers on offense, though Ziggy Ansah could become a defensive star. And the Bears will have an underrated defense but little else worth mentioning.

NFC South:

1. Carolina (11-5)
2. Atlanta (9-7)
3. New Orleans (8-8)
4. Tampa Bay (7-9)

The defending NFC Champions get Kelvin Benjamin back and still have Cam Newton and a terrifying front seven. Since those things aren't likely to change, they are favorites in the NFC South. The Saints aren't quite a playoff team, but it feels like they're getting better on offense at least, or back to where they were at the start of this decade. The Falcons still have many of the same problems that have dogged them for years, but they're not truly bad enough to plummet at the moment. And for the Bucs, the change in coach probably won't change much in terms of their immediate fortune, though Jameis Winston's continued improvement is exciting.

Fantasy Player to Watch: Kelvin Benjamin

NFC West:

1. Arizona (13-3)
2. Seattle (11-5)
3. LA Rams (6-10)
4. San Francisco (3-13)

The two best teams in the NFC may reside in the NFC West, and they will once again slug it out for supremacy. The Cardinals might be the most faultless team in football, with Seattle not far behind. The drop off in this division from the top to the bottom of it is astonishing, and watching the top two play the bottom two will be quite a bit of fun, in a perverse sense. It'll be the 49ers and Browns competing for next year's #1 overall draft pick, and beyond that, the Rams won't finish 7-9 for once, because they're going to finish 6-10.

Fantasy Player to Watch: Thomas Rawls

AFC East:

1. New England (11-5)
2. New York Jets (9-7)
3. Buffalo Bills (8-8)
4. Miami (7-9)

Even though the Patriots are Tom Brady less for four games, those four are against Arizona, Miami, Houston and Buffalo. They would have been favored in the three games they're favored in anyway. And angry and scorched earth Tom Brady is a terrifying prospect. The Jets still have a ferocious defense and if they can get out of their own way, they'll have every chance of making the postseason once again. Buffalo and Miami are not bad, just not outstanding or special. Both have areas of personnel weakness that are going to hold them back from being true playoff contenders right now.

Fantasy Player to Watch: DeVante Parker

AFC North:

1. Pittsburgh (12-4)
2. Cincinnati (11-5)
3. Baltimore (7-9)
4. Cleveland (2-14)

Pittsburgh's offense is going to be legitimately terrifying this season, even with the pieces that they're missing. We saw plenty of it last year, and it's helped Ben Roethlisberger's career renaissance. As of now, they're the best team in the AFC, though they have stiff competition from the team right behind them. The Bengals have had a talent and coaching drain because they've been so steady despite their lack of playoff successes, but doesn't this feel like the year they finally break through? That front seven is a monster, and if they can escape their opening schedule 4-2 or better, watch out. Baltimore will improve after injuries decimated their 2015 season, but they're not at the Bengals or Steelers caliber yet. And for the Browns well... they're tanking.

Fantasy Player to Watch: Tyler Boyd

AFC South:

1. Houston (9-7)
2. Indianapolis (8-8)
3. Jacksonville (7-9)
4. Tennessee (5-11)

The best way to describe the AFC South is this: it is the NFC East sans the brand names. Once again: mediocrity personified. Houston paid a lot of coin for Brock Osweiler, and to my eye he's still unproven. He has Lamar Miller and DeAndre Hopkins as major weapons, but little else around that. On defense, there are the established stars but beyond that there is questionable depth. But they still have more than everyone else in the division. Andrew Luck's return will stabilize the Colts, but they still have no running game, a sieve of an offensive line, a major talent deficiency on defense that Luck will not be able to overcome. While so many are high on the Jaguars, and for good reason, coaching is going to be their downfall. So many head-scratching decisions and now there are no excuses because of a lack of personnel. Individual performances may have to save this team from itself if they want to make the postseason, which they absolutely can do if Gus Bradley coaches better than a coach who has won only 25% of his games (and if they start fast, which they need to do). The Titans are coached by Mike Mularkey. Enough said.

Fantasy Player to Watch: Derrick Henry

AFC West:

1. Kansas City (11-5)
2. Oakland (10-6)
3. Denver (8-8)
4. San Diego (5-11)

Kansas City will be steady on offense, terrifying on defense as they have been in recent years, but with the factors turned up a notch. Their questions at running back are concerning, and Alex Smith is Alex Smith, but their defense should be able to overcome some of those worries. Oakland is the young team to watch more than Jacksonville, largely because of the presence of playmakers and better coaching (I can't believe I said that about Jack Del Rio). Denver has the defense, though it's been gutted somewhat, but they're still starting Trevor Siemian. That's hard to get over, and defense in today's NFL can only get you so far. And for the Chargers, their cheapness is costing them once again and wasting the back end of Philip Rivers' career.

Fantasy Player to Watch: Derek Carr

NFC Playoff Teams: 1. ARZ (13-3), 2. GB (12-4), 3. CAR (11-5), 4. NYG (9-7), 5. SEA (11-5), 6. MIN (9-7).

AFC Playoff Teams: 1. PIT (12-4), 2. NE (11-5), 3. KC (11-5), 4. HOU (9-7), 5. CIN (11-5), 6. OAK (10-6).

NFC Playoffs:

Wild Card: CAR over MIN, SEA over NYG

Divisional Round: ARZ over SEA, GB over CAR

NFC Championship Game: GB over ARZ

AFC Playoffs:

Wild Card: CIN over HOU (They've done it!), OAK over KC

Divisional Round: PIT over OAK, CIN over NE

AFC Championship Game: PIT over CIN

Super Bowl LI: Green Bay over Pittsburgh (must be a Texas thing).

Award Predictions:

MVP: Ben Roethlisberger (PIT)
OPOY: Odell Beckham (NYG)
DPOY: Khalil Mack (OAK)
OROY: Ezekiel Elliot (DAL)
DROY: Jalen Ramsey (JAX) (I couldn't think of anyone else for fear of jinxing him)
Coach: Jack Del Rio (OAK)
Comeback Player: Kelvin Benjamin (CAR)

So these are my NFL season predictions. Feel free to once again tell me how wrong I'm going to be.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

There is Nothing more American than Colin Kaepernick's National Anthem Protest

I admit, I hate reaction to reaction pieces in most instances. You're beginning to read one from me right now, and while this in many ways only fans the flames of incendiary nonsense instead of starting meaningful discussion about deep-seeded issues, they shouldn't. Hopefully, the piece you are about to read about Colin Kaepernick's protest does spark discussions that are necessary, rather than 140 character badly thrown barbs at each other.

Last night, Colin Kaepernick decided to not stand for the national anthem before the Packers-49ers preseason game in protest.

"I'm not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," he said after the game last night. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and away with murder."

Kaepernick is a "controversial figure", largely because of how his play has dropped precipitously from the season in which he lead his 49ers to the Super Bowl. While being benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert is pretty bad, his on-field performance is entirely irrelevant to this discussion. He is someone who has been a very vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and issues that have great importance to black America. He was called a "thug" for his tattoos during his and the 49ers rise to success earlier in this decade, so these "controversies" are not new to him. His taking a stand for issues bigger than football, especially in a league that doesn't like controversies like these as the NFL does, is admirable and should be praised.

But, as is customary, there is a major backlash to his protest. Most of the rebuttals are typical responses ranging from "protesting during the national anthem is the wrong time to protest"to "why would he protest a country where he could make the money he has" and of course, "if he doesn't like it here, he can leave". Most of these arguments have come from people who supposedly want to "Make America Great Again", though they never considered leaving to Canada even once, but again, that's missing the point.

Dictionary.com defines a protest as, "an expression or declaration of object, disapproval or dissent, often in opposition to something a person is powerless to prevent or avoid". The critical phrase in that definition is "powerless to prevent or avoid", and Kaepernick's protest is exactly that: a protest against the disproportionate violence against black people and the systemic and institutionalized racism that permeates our country. As an individual, even one with as much stature as he has, there is little he can do individually, other than start a discussion and potentially a movement. He is using his stature, much like Muhammad Ali, Mahmoud Abdul-Raouf and many others who wanted to protest issues facing this country by not rising during the national anthem, as is well within their rights to do so. But it is how the discussion of the protest that is defining this discussion, not the protest itself, and that's a shame.

In 2016 America, these protests are becoming almost ubiquitous. The Minnesota Lynx wore Black Lives Matter t-shirts in protest after the killing of unarmed black men just outside of Minneapolis, as is well within their right. That protest was met with much the same call as Kaepernick's protest was, and it's time to address these concerns one-by-one not to discount the right of people to disagree with it, but to show that there is a double standard that needs to be addressed.

"Protesting during the National Anthem is the wrong time to protest": As we saw in the definition of protest, there is never a "right time" to protest. In the first amendment (the same first amendment many are using to defend their points of view), it reads: "Congress shall make no law... abridging... the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to protest the government for a redress of grievances". The crafters of the Constitution knew explicitly that protesting the government needed to be protected because of precisely an argument like "there is a wrong time to protest". The country we are now having this discussion in was founded and created largely because the people couldn't protest the government for a redress of grievances. Once we lose that right because people say "there is a right time to protest", the fabric of what made this country begins to decay.

Then we see the second phase of this argument, which goes something like this: "The American Flag and the Anthem are indelible marks of freedom, liberty and American values and protesting them devalues that". I argue it actually strengthens it. There is nothing more American than protesting the government, and Colin Kaepernick is exercising the most basic and most powerful American ideals by doing exactly what his detractors are saying he isn't doing. Also, symbols are projective surfaces, and what they mean to one person doesn't translate evenly across all experiences and all sets of values. What the American flag means to me could be entirely different to what it means to someone in rural Alabama, or inner city Detroit, and that's the beauty of a country like our own. Accepting this as a bedrock foundation of our country is important, and that doesn't mean forcing your views onto someone else.

The third phase of this argument, which is arguably the weakest goes like this: "Kaepernick shouldn't protest because he has made millions of dollars in this country, and if he doesn't like it, he can leave". Just because someone has made millions of dollars in sports, business, entertainment or hitting the lottery doesn't mean they suddenly don't have a right to care about the political future of their country. Many people with more money than Kaepernick has use their wealth to dramatically influence policy in this country, and they don't get the same backlash for their opinions and beliefs as Kaepernick does. And the idea if someone doesn't like how the country is being run, then they should leave is so incredibly reductionist it almost borders on insulting. The problems facing many people like Kaepernick won't go away if he moves to Canada, for instance and if he doesn't then those he supports lose a critical voice in the discussion, while the tenor of the discussion doesn't change. "Leaving the country" is tantamount to putting your head in a bucket of sand to pretend problems don't exist, or turning to sports and saying "they're an escape".

I've written countless pieces on this website over the years about how sports and politics are forever linked, and to think otherwise is willingly turning your head the other direction, but especially in a year like 2016, these discussions and controversies are going to keep on occurring and the backlash will be exactly the same every time. This points to larger, underlying divisions in our society that go beyond Kaepernick's refusal to stand during the national anthem (or criticizing Gabby Douglas for not putting her hand over her heart during the anthem at the Olympics, when white athletes did the same thing and nothing was made over it, for instance). Athletes like Kaepernick have so much influence in the public sphere and they should be willing to use it to talk about political issues they feel need to be talked about without the fear of the backlash. More and more athletes, particularly black athletes, are doing this now and they should be applauded for it. Issues cannot be fixed without discussion first, and someone needs to spark that discussion. If singers, actors and other artists are allowed to do this, why can't athletes? And why can't they be just as vocal, if not more vocal, then their fellow American citizens?

Kaepernick's stand might well damage his career to a point where he cannot save it, and he acknowledged this and, even better, doesn't care. "This is not something I'm going to run by anybody. I'm not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed... If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right." And standing up for his beliefs in the face of that is what makes this stand and protest so important. He is like many other athletes who want to protest who know the capitalistic pressures put on them usually prevent them from protesting, and only very few can rise above that pressure. The fact that he doesn't care should encourage more athletes in similar positions to his to follow his example, and once enough of the public backs those stands, so too will the endorsers, teams and leagues. The 49ers statement, while not wholeheartedly endorsing his stand, didn't bury him either and showed some support for his endeavor. We may never know what is happening behind the scenes, but the public moves by the team are a good sign. The NFL's statement is much the same, and while they could easily say more, it's easy to understand why they aren't.

This entire controversy drives right into the heart of the racial divide in this country right now, and no matter whether we've made any progress in recent years, the fact that I'm writing this piece reminds us all that we still have a long way to go. And while we all can respect differences in opinion on this and other issues, as well as the right of people to have and own those differences, that goes too for opinions we don't agree with, and in many cases we might think are "wrong".

That is the crux of what the American flag means to me, and Colin Kaepernick, and millions of other Americans. The fear of the backlash should not discourage protests from anyone, and hopefully what Kaepernick has done is removed some of that fear for athletes and others willing to protest in the future.

There is nothing more American than protesting the government. Fear is un-American. All of us should not be afraid of other opinions and political viewpoints, because once we are, we are failing to uphold those true American values.